Blueberry farms run-off linked to high nitrogen levels in Coffs Coast waterway

A quarter of the sites tested at Bucca Bucca Creek, north of Coffs Harbour, showed that levels were between 50 to 800 times higher than the trigger levels set out in the Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council’s guidelines.

The region has long been known as the Banana Coast but these days the rapid growth of the multi-million dollar blueberry industry is what is dominating the local agricultural landscape.

In total the state’s north coast brings in $250 million in revenue every year.

But residents like Wendy Robson say they have long been concerned about the increased density of blueberry farms and the impact that run-off from those farms is having on the region’s waterways.

“We live in a high rainfall area and all the rows of blueberries run straight into our river systems and they act like gutters.

“So when the rain comes down it collects all the chemical residue and dumps it in our system.

Concern for future of waterways

In response to these concerns the local council commissioned the study by Southern Cross University which tested eight sites in the vicinity of blueberry farms surrounding the Bucca Bucca Creek over the period of a year.

Lead researcher Isaac Santos said there was real concern about future long term implications on the water system if something wasn’t done.

“Essentially, algae in the waterways grows very quickly and that algae can essentially suck up much of the oxygen from the waterways and fish can die,” Professor Santos said.

“One of the consequences is that it becomes toxic and that can also be a problem for swimmers downstream.”

The researchers noted that nitrogen levels in the creek were generally high due to a number of factors including cattle farms, but they said when water was tested for nitrogen near blueberry farms there was a clear significant increase.

The research group found some farmers were using fertiliser excessively and that rather than being absorbed into the soil, it was simply being washed downstream into the waterways after heavy rain.

“About 20 per cent of nitrate that they are applying is going into the creeks,” Mr Santos said.

“If they implement better management options they can clearly decrease the use of fertilisers and that is going to bring both environmental and economic benefits.”

Code of conduct for growers

Alex Smith, the executive director of the industry’s peak body, the Australian Blueberry Growers Association, acknowledged the levels in the report were high, but he said the problem was likely to be with only two farms in the area.

“We’re going to work with those farms on improving their practices,” he said.

“When it comes down to it, it’s not just an environmental issue for those farmers it’s also an economic one because no one likes to buy fertiliser and have it wasted.”

The Association recently released a code of conduct which Mr Smith said was a vital step in informing more growers about best practice when it comes to managing their farm in the most sustainable way.

He said the group was holding workshops to ensure more farmers were working in line with the requirements set out in the code.

The report has a number of recommendations which included reducing fertiliser on farms using too much, better run-off management techniques by farmers, and even the planting of mangroves in the catchment to help purify the water.

Resident wants more creeks tested

But Wendy Robson who lives further south of the Bucca Bucca Creek region said not enough was being done to regulate those guidelines, and she wanted the waterways in her area tested as well.

“Everyone who has a creek that has a blueberry farm backing onto it should be concerned because if there’s 800 per cent nitrate in the Bucca Creek what’s to say there’s not here,” she said.

“These creeks are spring fed, and then they run straight through, down into the Bongil Bongil National Park. They’ve got platypus, pink-eye mullet, turtles, eels, all living through it.

“We need to having testing in all our small creek systems that are affected by the blueberries,” she said.

First publ;ished by ABC Mid-North Coast on Friday 6 April 2018.

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