Small failures

Hawke’s Bay District Health Board expects investigations will show a combination of small failures led to the gastroenteritis outbreak in Havelock North.

. . . The DHB’s chief executive, Kevin Snee, said he expected the government’s inquiry would show that there were small problems in the systems and processes used by the DHB, and by the district and regional councils.

He expected this to show that, when aligned, the problems allowed the water supply to become contaminated and people to get sick. . . 

This is so often the case, lots of small things add up to cause a big problem.

Earlier tests pointed to a ruminant animal as the cause of the outbreak.

Even before that was announced the usual suspects were blaming intensive dairy farming, in spite of there being none near the bore supplying the town.

. . . Federated Farmers president William Rolleston said the area near the aquifer was mostly lifestyle blocks and orchards.

He said people needed to take a step back from the speculation.

“We all contribute to bacteria in the environment, birds do, humans do and so do farm animals.

“Last week we saw a crescendo of finger pointing at agriculture, we heard that this was because of intensive dairy farms and the closest dairy farm we can find is 40 kilometres away.”

Mr Rolleston said while the indications did point to a four-legged animal as the source of contamination, that didn’t mean intensive agriculture was to blame.

He said the aquifer in question was a shallow aquifer, which had a greater risk of having its seals breached.

“We’re not saying that agriculture doesn’t create a risk, but those are the risks that the council needs to actually take cognisance of and mitigate.”

Last week the Green Party said any inquiry into the Havelock North water contamination should look at the role of intensive agriculture.

Mr Rolleston admitted agriculture was a risk for water.

“We’re not denying that and farmers have been up to the task. We’ve spent a billion dollars in the last decade fencing rivers and we’re playing our part.” . . 

Environment Minister Nick Smith also says speculation is unhelpful:

Questions have been asked about the culpability of cattle and chicken farmers, as well as a nearby mushroom farm, but Dr Smith says sometimes even the most basic failures could be to blame.

The campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North struck down 5100 people with gastro, closed schools and businesses and has left residents still boiling their drinking water weeks later.

It is a reminder of the E. coli contamination in Nelson where upstream farmers, birds and waterfowl were blamed before testing confirmed the true cause, Dr Smith says.

“It was embarrassingly found that most of the problem was toilets from the council’s library having been wrongly plumbed into the stormwater rather than the sewerage system,” he told crowds at a Lincoln University environment lecture in Christchurch on Tuesday night.

He said the lesson was to be cautious of jumping to conclusions too soon. . . 

He also addressed concerns about measuring water quality, limits on water takes and proposed strengthening of swimming requirements.

Dr Smith warned a goal of making all waterways swimmable, rather than wadeable, were “unworkable” and “impossible” without a massive bird cull.

But the Green Party has criticised that view as baseless.

“He knows, as we all do, that the real and lasting damage to our rivers is from stock in waterways, farm run-off, sewage and intensified dairy farms among others – he just won’t admit it,” Green Party water spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said. . . 

Tests above and below a dam on our farm confirmed birds were at the bottom of poor water quality.

The Otago Regional Council also proved seagulls were to blame for high levels of E.coli in the Kakanui River.

Up until recently, ORC staff and local farmers alike had been baffled about the cause of such high concentrations in the upper Kakanui, particularly during summer.

ORC staff have been concerned about the concentration of the bacteria, as high levels indicate a risk of people swimming becoming ill. The council enlisted the help of local farmers, who provided access to their properties and the nearby river for inspection.

ORC scientists went into the gorge to investigate by helicopter when this inspection failed to identify the source of the bacteria. The culprits − a large colony of nesting gulls − were found in rugged terrain, about 5km above the Clifton Falls bridge. Water quality samples were taken immediately above and below the colony, with divergent results.

Upstream of the colony, the bacteria concentrations were 214 E.coli/100ml, whereas immediately downstream, the concentration was far greater at 1300 E.coli/100ml.

The levels peaked on January 3, at 2400 parts per 100ml of water. ORC manager of resource science Matt Hickey said that according to Government water quality guidelines for recreational swimming areas, those with less than 260 E.coli/100ml should be safe, whereas water with more than 550 E.coli/100ml could pose a health-risk.

Mr Hickey said six colonies of gulls were found in total, on steep rocky faces, where they clearly favoured the habitat for nesting. While they had gone undetected up until now due to their inaccessibility, it was likely the gulls returned each year to breed.

“Unfortunately, these nesting gull colonies are likely to continue to cause high E.coli concentrations in the upper Kakanui River, particularly during the breeding season,” Mr Hickey said.

These are only two examples which show Delahunty is wrong to say birds aren’t a problem.

That doesn’t mean farming, especially when it’s intensive, is blameless.

There are many causes for poor water quality but many have happened over time and it will take time to get the improvements we all seek.

That is much more likely with the collaborative approach the Minister seeks:

New Zealand had a habit of turning environmental issues into a battle ground with winners and losers where farmers are seen as environmental vandals and environmentalists as economic imbeciles, Dr Smith said.

“I have been trying to lead a culture change at both a national and local level where different water users and interest groups work together on finding solutions that will work for the environment and the economy,” he said.

It doesn’t have to be either a healthy environment or a growing economy.

A collaborative approach, based on science, can achieve both.

Science must also be applied to the cause, and response to, Havelock North’s problems to ensure that a series of small failures doesn’t lead to large-scale gastroenteritis again.

9 Responses to Small failures

  1. Dr Rolleston wrote a fantastic piece in the Auckland paper today:


  2. Mr E says:

    This whole episode is fascinating.

    It is fascinating to watch politicians leap to conclusions. It is fascinating to watch attention drawn toward dairy when tests indicate ruminants. It is fascinating to see people take the word cattle and translate it to cow.

    People are taking very strong positions on very very poor information.

    It is equally fascinating to watch dairy farmers sit quietly and take it.

    I am amused to watch Fish and Game sling ….. when their attempts to recognise the impacts of wildfowl on water quality has been non-existent.

    How many people out there know that research suggests that the average duck output of ecoli is nearly 30 times that of a cow? And ducks have free roaming access to water, meaning the proportion of ecoli that goes into water is much much much more than a cow?. There are nearly as many ducks in NZ as dairy cows.

    Wildfowl have a massive role to play in water quality. Fish and Game manage that species and rather than put their hand up and recognise a responsibility, that needs action, they throw stones, inappropriate hypocritical stones, at others. Dairy farmers should be up in arms about the inappropriate attack on them. Instead they are generally very quiet.

    I hope that means they are waiting for effective evidence to defend themselves and when they have it, they will react appropriately. But I doubt that will be the case. I think dairying has been bullied and bashed into silence. Not absolutely but generally.

    My recollection from school yard activities is that bullies focus on quiet kids. Kids that don’t defend themselves. There are some where the quieter they are – the more they are bullied – the quieter they become.

    Interestingly, as a kid, I was a defender of the down trodden. A role I have continued through my life.

    I will watch the diary industry with interest – wondering if one day it will snap, or continue to be the play toy for political bullying.

    Regarding the contamination, I doubt we will ever have sufficient evidence to justify confident finger pointing. There will be a list of probables and possibles. But a conclusive answer is unlikely.

    One thing that has surprised me is for all the attention dairy has received, nobody has recognised cow manure is used on some horticulture farms as fertiliser. Particularly organic ones. That is not a finger point, just an observation that nobody has mooted that possibility.

    Regarding Fish and Game – I stopped buying a licence years ago. I refuse to fund their ‘dirty regulating’ ways.


  3. Mr E says:

    Regarding the Tuki river, it is worth noting that LAWA rank it in the top 25% of like sites for Ecoli.

    Select the ‘scientific indicators’ tab.


  4. Paul Scott says:

    Thanks posters Mr. E and james username. I have copied your posts over to my research folder. I would not discover these facts by myself. I will make a post on agenda driven social science on the Sunday rave column.


  5. Paul Scott says:

    james user : Do you know whether genetic modification can be reliably traced. That is say if semen were modified. I suppose it is regulation to go through about a generation of Green slander to get anywhere. Is there not a temptation here for some mix up of material .


  6. Richard says:

    A few days ago I had a spare moment and looked TVNZ on demand and an episode of Nigel Latta’s program- this one being about parliament. There was scene about the Labour Party at an early morning Monday where they were were working out how they were going to hit the government in the coming week – no evidence, just sound bites.
    Mr E’s point “It is fascinating to watch politicians leap to conclusions” is so right- on this issue and many others- the media follow these issues like fawns. Why is it that Ele has to present evidence to counter claims when it should in the old tradition the media should provide this evidence?


  7. Mr E says:

    Interesting claims by Dr Mike Joy.
    “I’m sure most New Zealanders don’t realise that we have the highest rates in the OECD or in the developed world of these gastro diseases that come from animals”

    I just went onto the OECD stat website.
    I completed the following search:
    Hospital discharges by diagnostic categories
    Variable :Diarrhoea and gastroenteritis of presumed infectious origin
    Measure: Per 100 000 population

    We are the lowest out of all OECD countries.. I am not sure where Mike gets his stats from but they are at odds with those I have found.


  8. Richard says:

    Mr E – thanks for your last – just added academics not to trust. Academics, journalists, politicians . They all come under the cloak of money – I have always relied on objective view of a London taxi driver—-


  9. Will says:

    I’m sure Richard’s question is rhetorical, but the answer is that the media does not report news, they create and sustain narratives, which are more powerful and long lasting. The story that we are being poisoned by the people who feed us is too good to let die. The ‘news’ is just factoids picked to sustain the narratives.


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