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.