Small failures

01/09/2016

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.


What about the birds?

14/07/2014

The Green Party aims to have every river clean enough to swim in.

What will they do about the birds?

Up until recently, ORC staff and local farmers alike have been baffled as to what has been responsible for high concentrations of E.coli occurring at Clifton Falls on the upper Kakanui River, particularly during summer.

ORC staff have been concerned about the bacteria, as high levels have the potential to cause illness in recreational bathers.

ORC enlisted the help of local farmers, who provided access to their properties and the nearby river for close inspection. When still no source of bacteria was found, a helicopter was sent into the gorge to gain an aerial perspective of the problem.

The source – a large colony of nesting gulls – was found in rugged terrain, about 5 km above the Clifton Falls bridge.

Water quality samples were taken immediately above and below the colony, with widely 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 .

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/100m 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. . .

But they can’t be removed because some are protected.

Council resource science manager Matt Hickey said an aerial inspection of the site had revealed that the colony contained at least one species of protected gull, and that meant the council could not act to remove the nesting birds.

”There are three species of gulls, and two of them are protected. . . .

This is not the only river to be polluted by birds and of course they are not always to blame.

And like a lot of other Green policies while this one looks fine on the surface, it’s impractical when you look deeper.

Some waterways, like the Waiareka Creek near us for example, have never been swimmable.

It used to be a series of near stagnant ponds most of the year. Now, thanks to guaranteed minimum flows with irrigation it’s running clean and clear and waterlife has established again, but it’s not deep enough to swim in.

The causes of water pollution are many – some are natural, some the result of people’s activity.

Some waterways will be able to be cleaned up relatively easily – and this is already being done.

It will take a longer time and a lot of money to get others cleaner and getting up to swimmable standard for some waterways will be impractical.

Environment Minister Amy Adams says the Greens announcement today is just the latest step in their anti-jobs, anti-growth, stop everything manifesto.

“Improving the quality of our freshwater is important to us all but the Greens approach is costly and impractical.  Approaching improvement through blanket bans and requirements for every drainage ditch across New Zealand to be maintained at a swimming pool standard just shows that the Greens have once again confirmed they are the anti-growth Party, by pursuing polices that would hurt households and damage the creation of new jobs across regional New Zealand for little real gain,” Ms Adams says.

“The Greens need to explain where they will find the billions of dollars of costs and lost revenue it could take to make every single centimetre of New Zealand’s 425,000 kilometres of rivers and streams suitable for swimming. They clearly haven’t thought through the consequences.  Once more we see that they are happy to spend the taxes generated by productive New Zealand but they take every opportunity to impose more costs on households and the businesses who are at the heart of our economy.

“And Russel Norman is once again attempting to mislead New Zealanders by comparing the nitrogen settings in the new National Freshwater Standards to the Yangtze river in China.  While the Yangtze is indeed a highly polluted river, nitrogen is not the problem there. Dr Norman knows this, or at least he should, but continues to try and twist the reality in support of his own agenda.

 “The Government’s approach to raising freshwater standards is much more pragmatic. Our clear, robust national standards for rivers and lakes will make a significant improvement to the way freshwater is managed.

“Our approach will ensure that for the first time New Zealand’s rivers and lakes will have minimum requirements that must be achieved so the water quality is suitable for ecosystem and human health.

 “The Government will let communities make the call about whether particular rivers and lakes should be suitable for swimming all the time, rather than be dictated to by politicians in Wellington.

“In addition, New Zealand already has a system for protecting our most valuable waterways – water conservation orders. These give the highest level of protection to 15 iconic waterways across New Zealand, and have been described as creating a national park system for water.  What the Greens are actually saying in this policy is they plan to stop New Zealand using one of the more important natural advantages it has.  

“Rather than stopping water use, National’s plan is about ensuring it is used responsibly in a way that provides for the needs of our people now, and into the future.”

The Green party appears to believe that economic growth always can only come at the expense of the environment and only by putting the brakes on growth can the environment be protected and enhanced.

That is not right.

I am proud to head the Bluegreens Caucus and proud to be the Chair of the Local Government & Environment Select Committee

It doesn’t have to be one or the other – we can have both economic growth and environmental protection and enhancement.

Furthermore if we want high environmental standards we need the wealth a growing economy brings to pay for them.


Dirty birds

18/02/2013

Towards the end of last year a report from the Otago Regional Council raised concerns about deteriorating water quality in the Kakanui River.

One of the contributing factors was an increased level of E.coli.

Dairying was blamed although the council couldn’t find the source.

One of the dairy farmers decided to do his own research and canoed down the river.

He found a couple of dead sheep caught in submerged branches then he came on a large colony of seagulls nesting in a canyon.

He reported this to the council which sent a helicopter up the river and found the source of the problem.

. . .  a large colony of nesting gulls – was found in rugged terrain, about 5 km above the Clifton Falls bridge.

Water quality samples were taken immediately above and below the colony, with widely 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 .

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/100m 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 the inaccessible nature of the gorge, it was likely the gulls returned each year to breed in the same places.

“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.

“Bird activity, river flow, or even whether it is a cloudy or sunny day, (as E.coli often died quickly in clear water when exposed to sunlight) will influence actual bacteria numbers at Clifton Falls bridge. With hindsight, it reflects the random nature of the historical bacteria results at this site.”

Mr Hickey said the E.coli concentrations reflected a large number of birds congregating in a small area and we are fortunate this situation was not common in Otago. Historically E.coli concentrations in the lower Kakanui River have been very low, despite the gull colonies being found upstream.

The council is warning people against swimming in the river but we’ve had no warning about drinking the water, presumably because it’s treated.

Locals are very keen to solve the problem but it’s not necessarily a simple matter:

Coastal Otago biodiversity programme manager David Agnew said the Department of Conservation would look into the situation and try to identify which species of gull were nesting in the area.

Mr Agnew said the species involved would determine what could be done to remove them.

”Black-backed gulls are not protected so that’s not a problem as far as if they are causing a problem. They are not rare or threatened, they are not even protected, whereas red-billed gulls and black-billed gulls both have their own conservation concerns.”

There’s no concern about conservation with cows. If they were causing water quality problems farmers could face prosecution and would have to act quickly to address the cause.

Some gulls have a special status and if they’re the ones fouling the water the clean up will take some time.


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