Wa­ter fears spill into cam­paign


Sup­pos­edly, clean wa­ter is on track to be­come the 21st cen­tury equiv­a­lent of oil. At a less lofty level, the poli­cies meant to ad­dress the state of New Zealand’s waterways are emerg­ing as key ar­eas of difference at this year’s elec­tion.

These wran­gles over wa­ter are oc­cur­ring on sev­eral fronts, with the size of tax­payer sub­si­dies for ir­ri­ga­tion, the op­ti­mal size of dairy herds, and the lev­els of pol­lu­tants al­lowed in the na­tion’s rivers and lakes be­ing just some of the points in con­tention.

Back in Fe­bru­ary, the govern­ment kicked off this de­bate by re­leas­ing a Clean Wa­ter Plan meant to make 90 per cent of the coun­try’s waterways ‘‘swimmable’’ by 2040. Within days, the plan had come un­der at­tack – mainly be­cause it of­fered weaker grad­ings of e.coli con­tam­i­na­tion than the 2014 pol­icy state­ment it was sup­posed to re­place.

Even the of­fi­cials at the En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry were soon hav­ing dif­fi­culty with it. Last week, emails re­leased un­der the Of­fi­cial In­for­ma­tion Act re­vealed that only one day af­ter the plan was an­nounced, min­istry staff were email­ing sci­en­tists both here and in the United States, ask­ing for ‘‘thoughts or sug­ges­tions’’ be­cause ‘‘we are strug­gling to ex­plain the sci­ence in easy-to-un­der­stand terms for the gen­eral pub­lic.’’

Clearly sens­ing a po­lit­i­cal open­ing, Labour last week re­leased its own 12-point fresh­wa­ter plan aimed at im­prov­ing wa­ter qual­ity and mak­ing rivers and lakes ‘‘gen­uinely’’ swimmable within a five-year pe­riod. The plan would in­clude spe­cific clean ups of some of the coun­try’s more grossly pol­luted rivers and lakes.

More con­tro­ver­sially, the Labour plan would crack down on in­ten­sive farm­ing by re­quir­ing all heav­ily stocked farm­land near waterways to be fenced within five years, and would reg­u­late the run-off al­lowed from so-called ‘‘spray and pray’’ farm­ing prac­tices. Not sur­pris­ingly, Federated Farm­ers has al­ready weighed in against Labour’s plans to cap stock numbers – call­ing such moves ‘‘bizarre’’ and likely to jeop­ar­dise ru­ral economies.

How­ever, on this is­sue – as on cli­mate change – pub­lic sen­ti­ment may be shift­ing to a recog­ni­tion that the prob­lems fac­ing waterways will not fix them­selves un­der business as usual. At heart, the man­date for stricter reg­u­la­tion springs from a wide­spread feel­ing that swimmable rivers and lakes form a key part of the na­tion’s her­itage. Peo­ple who used to swim in rivers want their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to be able to do the same with­out be­ing made sick in the at­tempt.

On a more prag­matic level, the po­ten­tial cost to New Zealand’s clean and green tourism im­age also ar­guably out­weighs the likely costs of com­pli­ance.

Tourism dol­lars aside though, it is the in­ter-gen­er­a­tional as­pect of waterways pol­icy that makes this such a po­ten­tially pow­er­ful elec­tion is­sue. Op­po­si­tion par­ties will be fram­ing this as a sit­u­a­tion where short term re­turns can no longer be al­lowed to jeop­ar­dise the nat­u­ral le­gacy avail­able to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

It doesn’t help Na­tional that Nick Smith – one of Cab­i­net’s poorer per­form­ers – is tasked with mak­ing the govern­ment’s case.

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