Wa­ter stan­dards vs ex­port dol­lars


As re­cently as the mid-1980s, clean swimmable rivers and lakes were a non-ne­go­tiable part of our na­tional iden­tity.

Most of us grew up in a nat­u­ral land­scape blessed with pure wa­ter, and we as­sumed that our chil­dren and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions would al­ways be able to do like­wise. Not any more.

Last week, the Govern­ment re­leased its pro­pos­als for new wa­ter qual­ity stan­dards but the changes ap­pear likely to make New Zealand’s wa­ter qual­ity cri­sis worse, not bet­ter.

True, the Govern­ment has set a wor­thy-sound­ing tar­get.

Ac­cord­ing to En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Nick Smith, the Govern­ment’s aim is to make 90 per cent of this coun­try’s wa­ter­ways swimmable by the year 2040 – which, in prac­tice, means be­ing safe for swim­ming about 80 per cent of the time.

Prime Min­is­ter Bill English claimed to be tak­ing a ‘bal­anced’ ap­proach.

‘‘Some ide­al­ists be­lieve that you could achieve fresh­wa­ter stan­dards im­me­di­ately at any cost. We don’t think that’s cor­rect…’’

English may have been mak­ing a bid for the ‘‘sen­si­ble’’ mid­dle ground…yet the claims to mod­er­a­tion were not re­flected in the pol­icy fine print.

As Massey Univer­sity fresh­wa­ter ecol­o­gist Mike Joy said, there is now a 1-in-20 chance of get­ting campy­lobac­ter from swim­ming in a river rated ’’ex­cel­lent’’ by the Min­istry of the En­vi­ron­ment.

The new reg­u­la­tions, as Smith says, in­clude wel­come el­e­ments such as tighter rules on fenc­ing stock off from wa­ter­ways.

How­ever, the fae­cal pathogen lev­els per­mit­ted will ac­tu­ally in­crease from the cur­rent 260 units to 540 e coli units per 100 millil­itres of wa­ter.

Ni­tro­gen lev­els (which en­hance al­gal bloom and kill fish and other or­gan­isms) will go vir­tu­ally unchecked.

As Joy summed up to Ra­dio New Zealand, ‘‘It’s like say­ing OK, a lot of peo­ple are ex­ceed­ing the 50 kmh speed limit in town so, in 20 years’ time, we’re go­ing to have 90 per cent of the peo­ple obey­ing the rules - but we’re go­ing to shift the speed limit to 100kmh.’’

While the en­vi­ron­men­tal costs of our de­clin­ing wa­ter stan­dards were be­ing de­bated, a re­lated re­port flew in un­der the radar.

In their quar­terly anal­y­sis, NZ In­sti­tute of Eco­nomic Re­search found that the dairy in­dus­try con­trib­utes $7.8 bil­lion an­nu­ally to New Zealand’s GDP.

In other words, about 30 per cent of the ex­port dol­lars earned by this coun­try come from dairy, which em­ploys some 40,000 work­ers na­tion­wide.

No sur­prise then that the govern­ment seems less in­ter­ested in ‘‘bal­ance’’ than in gen­u­flect­ing be­fore the ex­port re­turns from our dairy ex­porters.

On this is­sue, English still hasn’t en­gaged with the hard yards of gov­er­nance. This would re­quire him rein­ing in, not cav­ing into, the eco­nomic clout of the dairy in­dus­try.

To make our wa­ter­ways safe again, English will need to strike a more ac­tive bal­ance be­tween the com­pet­ing needs of dairy, tourism and the en­vi­ron­ment, and well be­fore 2040.

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