The fresh wa­ter de­bate

The state of New Zealand’s streams, rivers and lakes has be­come a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball. The ques­tion is: do you want to swim, or wade?

Element - - Contents - Com­ment: Re­becca Rei­der

Should New Zealan­ders be able to swim in the coun­try’s rivers? Strange things can hap­pen in elec­tion sea­son; and this time around, it seems the hal­lowed sum­mer­time swim­ming hole is up for de­bate.

In early July, the Bee­hive an­nounced New Zealand rivers and lakes would be sub­ject to “clear, ro­bust” new na­tional stan­dards for wa­ter qual­ity. Na­tional Party, cham­pion of rivers?

“It is crit­i­cal that we pro­tect and im­prove the wa­ter qual­ity that we all care so much about,” said En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Amy Adams, an­nounc­ing the new fresh­wa­ter stan­dards.

Alas, not many hearts were swayed by the new pol­icy. Gareth Mor­gan put it bluntly on Camp­bell Live: the stan­dards would en­sure that wa­ter would only be con­sid­ered too pol­luted “if your gum­boots melt” from wad­ing in it.

In­deed, Na­tional had de­cided to set max­i­mum pol­lu­tion lev­els such that rivers would be safe enough for wad­ing and boat­ing – but there was no re­quire­ment for them to be swimmable.

“New Zealan­ders want to be able to swim in their lo­cal river, but Na­tional’s plans of­fer noth­ing bet­ter than the abil­ity to wade in them,” said Green Party wa­ter spokesper­son Eu­ge­nie Sage. “If the Gov­ern­ment wants to turn our rivers into drainage ditches, then it should come clean about that.”

Last year, gov­ern­ment mon­i­tor­ing found that 61% of recre­ational sites on rivers were un­safe for swim­ming.

Na­tional then ad­mit­ted last month in Par­lia­ment that it was plan­ning to drop its an­nual re­port­ing on whether rivers are swimmable – as though the prob­lem with river health might dis­ap­pear if we just stopped look­ing at it.

While Na­tional’s pol­icy floun­dered in the shal­lows, the op­po­si­tion wasted no time. Two weeks af­ter the gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy an­nounce­ment, the Greens jumped in to an­nounce their own river pol­icy, declar­ing it one of their top elec­tion pri­or­i­ties. They vowed to es­tab­lish a pro­tected rivers net­work (akin to giv­ing some rivers Na­tional Park sta­tus); to take a strong stance on wa­ter qual­ity, mak­ing all rivers safe for swim­ming again; and to pro­hibit new dams on any still-wild rivers.

In early Au­gust, Labour joined the fray as well, an­nounc­ing a wa­ter pol­icy in par­tial agree­ment with the Greens. Their top pri­or­i­ties: mak­ing all rivers and lakes “swimmable, fish­able and suit­able for food gath­er­ing”; get­ting farm­ers to pay for us­ing big ir­ri­ga­tion schemes; and op­pos­ing pri­vati­sa­tion of wa­ter re­sources.

“Na­tional had de­cided to set max­i­mum pol­lu­tion lev­els such that rivers would be safe enough for wad­ing and boat­ing – but there was no re­quire­ment for them to be swimmable.”

The Gov­ern­ment, on the back foot, turned to the ageold com­bat tac­tic – that of play­ground name-call­ing. The Greens’ pro­posal was “the lat­est step in their anti-jobs, anti-growth, stop-ev­ery­thing man­i­festo,” de­clared a Bee­hive press re­lease. Surely mak­ing rivers swimmable should not be “dic­tated… by politi­cians in Welling­ton,” said Amy Adams. As for Labour, she called their wa­ter pro­posal an “anti-jobs at­tack on ru­ral New Zealand.”

Mean­while, Gareth Mor­gan com­mis­sioned a re­port cri­tiquing the new gov­ern­ment pol­icy, draw­ing on the ad­vice of 16 lead­ing fresh­wa­ter sci­en­tists. The re­port pointed out that the gov­ern­ment’s stan­dards for ni­trate tox­i­c­ity were to­tally in­ad­e­quate, set at a level where ni­trates would be toxic to 20% of aquatic species – a sig­nif­i­cant level of ecosys­temic fail­ure. The Mor­gan Foun­da­tion’s re­port put the sci­en­tists’ alarm in plain words: “The anal­ogy used is that an al­co­holic is sick long be­fore their liver fails.” Mor­gan has started a “My River” web­site – garethsworld.com/myriver – to en­cour­age av­er­age New Zealan­ders to be­come ac­tivists, pro­tect­ing their rivers and in­flu­enc­ing pol­icy.

It wasn’t always this bad, of course. The sud­den growth of New Zealand’s dairy in­dus­try has caused fresh­wa­ter qual­ity to de­cline rapidly in re­cent decades. The coun­try­side has gained 125% more cows in the past 30 years. The soar­ing num­ber of bovine blad­ders has meant a whole lot more urine go­ing onto the ground – and from there reach­ing ground­wa­ter and rivers. Dairy farm­ing con­trib­utes 38% of the ni­tro­gen runoff that ends up in New Zealand water­ways.

It’s not just hu­mans that are los­ing their swim­ming holes; 74% of New Zealand fresh­wa­ter fish species are now listed as threat­ened.

Jan Wright, Par­lia­men­tary Com­mis­sioner for the En­vi­ron­ment, is­sued a dire warn­ing in a Novem­ber 2013 re­port: “If we con­tinue to see large-scale con­ver­sion of land to more in­ten­sive uses, it is dif­fi­cult to see how wa­ter qual­ity will not con­tinue to de­cline.”

Still, many of those cham­pi­ons of wa­ter qual­ity are point­ing fingers not at in­di­vid­ual farm­ers, but at gov­ern­ment pol­icy. Massey Univer­sity sci­en­tist Dr Mike Joy, an out­spo­ken rivers ad­vo­cate, spelled it out in a re­cent lec­ture to the Royal So­ci­ety: “Decades of min­i­mal reg­u­la­tion of im­pacts from gov­ern­ment has been the ma­jor fac­tor con­tribut­ing to the cri­sis we now have. “Poor prac­tices have been in­cen­tivised; with no penalty for pol­lu­tion, farm­ers have been pushed by the in­dus­try to max­imise profit at the ex­pense of our wa­ters.”

Labour and the Greens have not spec­i­fied ex­actly how they would get New Zealand’s rivers back into healthy swimmable con­di­tion. None­the­less, as the po­lit­i­cal par­ties stake out op­po­site po­si­tions, the Septem­ber 20 elec­tion ap­pears set to in­flu­ence how clearly our rivers flow into the future.

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