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.