Fight­ing for the fu­ture of fresh­wa­ter

Taupo & Turangi Weekender - - Front Page - Lau­rilee McMichael

Dr Mike Joy says work­ing as an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist makes it dif­fi­cult for him to be op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of New Zealand’s fresh­wa­ter.

“I’m more into the ac­cep­tance phase of the seven stages of grief,” says Mike, who has been a strong critic of the coun­try’s wa­ter qual­ity over the years.

How­ever things got just a lit­tle brighter when the govern­ment an­nounced a re­vi­sion of the Na­tional Pol­icy State­ment for Fresh­wa­ter Man­age­ment and a new Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal Stan­dard.

En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter David Parker and Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter Damien O’Con­nor an­nounced on Mon­day that new rules will be in place by 2020 to stop degra­da­tion of fresh­wa­ter qual­ity. The govern­ment is promis­ing a no­tice­able im­prove­ment in wa­ter qual­ity within five years.

Mike has been named as a mem­ber of the En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry’s science and tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sory group that will over­see the science ev­i­dence for fresh­wa­ter pol­icy de­vel­op­ment. Its broad brief will be to pro­vide science and tech­ni­cal ad­vice on the Es­sen­tial Fresh­wa­ter work pro­gramme and other Min­istry for the En­vi­ron­ment work.

He said that while it was still early stages, the only way to achieve im­proved fresh­wa­ter qual­ity was to re­duce farm­ing in­ten­sity plus ma­jor land use change.

Speak­ing to the Taupo & Tu­rangi Week­ender, Mike says his talk in Taupo¯ next week will be about what’s hap­pen­ing with fresh­wa­ter in New Zealand and the spin and coverups that go on to deny or de­flect what is hap­pen­ing.

He says there is a real im­pe­tus on re­gional coun­cils to “tell a happy story” about wa­ter qual­ity.

“They put more ef­fort into em­ploy­ing PR staff rather than sci­en­tists and talk­ing up these sup­posed im­prove­ments and so you get the neg­a­tive side of peo­ple like Fed­er­ated Farm­ers say­ing we don’t need to im­prove our fresh­wa­ter.

“When they say ‘I’ve fenced off 100 per cent of my streams’, what they don’t say is that it’s 100 per cent of the streams that meet their def­i­ni­tion of a stream, be­cause any­thing smaller than their def­i­ni­tion which is wider than a

stride and deeper than a Red Band doesn’t count, and yet we have the re­search say­ing that less than that’s where 70 per cent of the con­tam­i­nants come from.

“Any op­por­tu­nity I have to point out what’s go­ing on with fresh­wa­ter and what to be­lieve and what not to be­lieve and high­light the spin that hap­pens and hope­fully talk about the re­al­i­ties that we need to be aware of.”

Mike says like cli­mate change, the main an­swer lies in do­ing less.

“We could eas­ily go back to no ni­trate fer­tiliser and fix all our ni­tro­gen from clover the way we used to but there’s no money in it. Our prob­lem is that the way we mea­sure the econ­omy and the way we think about it is based on growth. The econ­o­mists have this sys­tem that’s based on growth and they have trou­ble cop­ing with sys­tems that don’t do that.”

While projects to re­duce the amount of ni­tro­gen leach­ing into lakes Taupo¯ and Ro­torua have been lauded as ex­am­ples of en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, Mike has his doubts.

He praises the ‘fence at the top of the cliff’ ap­proach, say­ing so much of New Zealand’s ap­proach to fresh­wa­ter man­age­ment is based on the am­bu­lance at the bot­tom, but ques­tions why peo­ple should have to be in­cen­tivised not to pol­lute.

“Where that’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to un­der­stand is that those two iconic lakes get spe­cial treat­ment where we ac­tu­ally pay

farm­ers a huge amount of money not to leach pol­lu­tants into a lake. If we were to ap­ply that same logic, we would be look­ing at $24 bil­lion to have it hap­pen for the coun­try. The other way of look­ing at that is that it’s a di­rect sub­sidy of al­low­ing farm­ers to pol­lute our rivers to the value of $24 bil­lion per year, be­cause that’s how much dam­age they’re do­ing that we are pay­ing for.”

Mike points to the suc­cess of ini­tia­tives such as Taupo¯ Beef as ex­am­ples of what can be done suc­cess­fully when low-in­ten­sity land uses are en­cour­aged and high­in­ten­sity land uses are charged for.

“That kind of ap­proach is driven by do­ing the right thing for the land. Bad prac­tice is just al­low­ing dairy in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion be­cause you don’t charge for the im­pacts of it.”

When it comes to fresh­wa­ter qual­ity, lakes are less of a prob­lem than rivers at present, but in the long term, once their wa­ter qual­ity has de­clined, lakes are much harder to re­turn to health.

“Rivers are faster to fix be­cause they are flow­ing all the time.”

Mike says while he is pleased to have the op­por­tu­nity to have in­put into the govern­ment’s science and tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sory group on pol­icy, he says in­evitably com­pro­mises will be made.

“Over the years I’ve had my heart bro­ken too many times by politi­cians to fall for them again but they’re def­i­nitely say­ing the right things.”

Photo / File

En­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist Dr Mike Joy is com­ing to Taupo¯’s Lakes and Wa­ter­ways Ac­tion Group’s meet­ing next week to talk about fresh­wa­ter is­sues.

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