You’ve heard the Neutron Bomb, the one that would radiate the enemy to death without damaging their more valuable buildings and infrastructure.

Well, meet the Nitrate Bomb. It’s silently exploded in Central Hawke’s Bay, but only kills critters living in waterways … or is it worse?

Monitoring of CHB wells undertaken by the HB Regional Council has produced the results in the chart below.

Sort of looks like Covid-19 taking off in New York City! What this indicates is that nitrate levels in CHB monitored wells have increased dramatically in just a few years, exceeding current drinking water standards in some cases.

If you look at the scale on the left, consider that 11.3 mg/l (note: mg/l and g/m3 are interchangeable) is the NZ drinking water limit for nitrate-nitrogen; 5.65 mg/l is seen as the trigger point for concern by health authorities for community supplies; and 0.88 mg/l is the level at which a study carried out in Denmark made a link to colorectal cancer. Heaps of bubbles above those limits.

Check out Mike Joy’s disturbing discussion of the cancer impacts of high nitrates, including right here in NZ, in this Newsroom article.

Note that the report from which the chart was taken was written in April 2019 … one year ago.

Here’s a RNZ report from Thursday morning describing the situation. This report says that HBRC and HBDHB are urging those drawing drinking water from shallow bores to have their water tested for nitrates, especially if there are children or pregnant women living in the affected homes. I could suggest a few CHB farming operations that should be sent the bills for that.

The morning RNZ report stung the Regional Council (obviously the original findings and consultant report didn’t), which issued an afternoon media release featuring Chairman Rex Graham.

The release referred to the “high nitrogen levels” and said they were the “single biggest focus” of HBRC’s regulation team, but didn’t actually confess exactly how high or dangerous they are. Or mention the recommended household bore testing. Perhaps the DHB public health folks should speak up on that.

Nor did HBRC specify what measures were being taken to reduce the levels, beyond noting that limits had been adopted in the recent Plan Change 6, which are now being addressed via Farm Environmental Management Plans (FEMPs) from virtually all farms, plus consents newly required for some 300 CHB farms.

Said Chairman Graham:“This is not going to be solved overnight, but Central Hawke’s Bay farmers are really stepping up and addressing these issues.”

In reality, the real issue is inappropriate land use and farming practices on soils not capable of retaining high levels of nutrients – everything from feedlots near waterways, to overuse of fertilisers, to dairy cows on gravel soils.

Bandaids on current practices won’t suffice. The only “stepping up” that will actually work is shifting what the land is used for in the first place and adopting regenerative farming practices. Will FEMPS and consent conditions require that? Don’t hold your breath.

Meantime, the Regional Council is determined to spend $15 million on CHB on enhancing water security — that is, increasing water supply, which will intensify land use, which will generate even more nutrient loss to aquifers and waterways).

The price that must be paid for more water in CHB is land use change. Otherwise FEMPs and consent conditions will simply prove inadequate to meet modern water quality standards.

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  1. The papanui stream flowing in the tuki tuki has extreme e-coli readings. Drinking water should have zero, for swimming max is 260 parts per 100mls. The Papanui stream had levels as high as 570,000. The sad thing is the Tukipo could be even worse.
    Our rivers are partly poor due to low flows. The biggest culprit has been over allocation of water by HBRC. Some dairy farms have takes as high as 10 million M3. Some still use surface takes, namely the two biggest users. The Onga stream where it meets the Tuki tuki went dry this year for the first time ever, yet those big farms kept pumping. This is failure of management at HBRC.

  2. What a sad state of affairs. We pay the councils to manage our resources and clearly they’ve done a miserable job! Apparently there has been no long range vision and water has been allocated without a thought to our future. Not good enough…especially as we will most likely end up paying to clean up this mess.

  3. Forgoodness sake—-Who is in charge here. This is the 21st Centaurus. You need to be looking into our future not keeping it the same as remedies for problems. Who is brave enough to make those decisions? Take your heads out of the sand!

  4. Very good article and summary Tom.

    “Bandaids on current practices won’t suffice. The only “stepping up” that will actually work is shifting what the land is used for in the first place and adopting regenerative farming practices”.

    Systems should firstly, and always be fitted to resources and that is not what is happening with many farming operations.
    I seriously believe that HBRC does not properly understand soil and landscape function and so keep treating symptoms as though they are the problem.
    FEMP’s will not fix the problem as the council is only concerned about “average” loading’s going out of the catchment and are even proceeding to “Steal” nutrient head ( and hence land value ) from those under-polluters that aren’t the problem to give to those that are which enables bad behavior to continue.
    We are continually told that these “state of the art, exemplar” farmers are a valuable asset to the community but in reality they are using and degrading community resources for personal financial gain while imposing significant costs on the rest of their community.
    The sooner that people wake up and see this the better, and don’t get me started with what HBRC and government money is looking to do with MAR’s ( managed aquifer recharge )

  5. This article shows how important Bay Buzz is to Hawkes Bay and wider New Zealand.
    Well written and states the facts clearly and with effect:
    “Note that the report from which the chart was taken was written in April 2019 … one year ago.”
    “I could suggest a few CHB farming operations that should be sent the bills for that.”

    It provides insight into both the increasingly dire repercussions many within the community face and the appalling lack of any obvious foresight or action by those who knew what was happening. FEMPS are not the answer and certainly not when attached to fuzzy TANK thinking at catchment levels. That impacts the big polluters less than the farmers who are actually implementing more knowledgeable management.
    I have written many submissions to HBRC over the last 10 years clearly stating the environmental and economic impacts of HBRC policy. I know that many others such as Andrew Wilson have similarly agitated and also been ignored.
    Tom Belford’s “Future Farming Trust” may be a step in the right direction but will become a non-issue unless backed by a wider pressure group of farmers and ratepayers.
    A final piece of “salt into the wound”. On TV news Friday evening, as the CHB farmer was talking about drought to the reporter, in the distance a large irrigator was still throwing water onto paddocks despite an apparent “all irrigation” ban and when, as Andrew Wilson states, streams in the area have run dry. All aquatic life is at risk and the Nitrate levels will kill any left in depleted streams.
    HBRC and commitment to the environment? Treating the effect rather than the cause has little impact on environment, costs far more money but keeps staff numbers up.

    Despite recent comment, smaller on farm dams are practically and economically stupid for pasture application. Ratepayers (nor taxpayers – Shane) should NOT be subsidising such schemes.

  6. This is a fight Rex Graham doesn’t have bone in. This is caused by over allocation of water by unelected HBRC officials, management look far too close to business to me. This is also not new it’s been years in the making, we have never seen action on water issues unless it’s causing embarrassment due to leaking into public domain. If this wasn’t printed it would be ignored. These Nitrate levels will end up in town water supplies , Nitrates are almost impossible to remove and it’s very serious.
    I don’t expect anything to be done once this debate goes quite, it will be ignored yet again.
    We no longer control councils, they are controlled by management and they are privatizing the commons right in front of our eyes.

  7. Again the HBRC has come under scrutiny for a failure to do their job. Where is the accountability, those whom have failed to do what rate payers pay them for!
    Fixing the issue after the fact surely is going to cost more than if those concerned had done their jobs properly in the first place. New Zealand looking at this drama unfolding will be like Australia building De-salination plants to get drinking potable water from sea water, trust me that’s very expensive. What I can’t understand is why have these people still got jobs.

  8. Ā quick look at the nitrate chart when put next to a ever increasing water take chart tells the whole story.
    The water pollution chart and the water takes chart look the same.
    Reduce the water take to the intensive farms and the pollution won’t keep being added to what is there now.
    The opposite would do the same thing, can’t pollute, can’t have as many cow ,need less water.
    Unfortunately some people seem to think it’s a better idea to build very expensive engineering solutions using public money than to push for the most logical thing.
    That would be to use what we have got now in a correct manner and then see if there’s still a problem

  9. We can collaborate for a better future and it requires change. We have recently embraced a regenerative practice for our farm and the benefits are already beginning to show improved results in earth revitalisation and we are monitoring water quality. Working together with the whenua is a key for our whanau

  10. I’d be very interested to hear any update on this situation, as well what the nitrate levels are like in the already problematic urban Napier water supply.

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