• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Where's the rest of the Government's plan on clean waterways?

The Government deserves some ticks in the ­“progress” column for its new clean-water policy, but has yet to dispel a climate of scepticism around its commitment to protect lakes and rivers.

There’s no doubt compulsorily fencing stock from waterways and upgrading urban sewerage infrastructure will assist rivers. The strategy’s new graded map, revealing where the worst pollution occurs, is a welcome boost to local-body regulators. And there’s a nod, too, to the issue of agricultural contaminants, requiring councils to introduce objectives for nitrogen and phosphorus. It’s also scientifically incontrovertible that any remediation will take decades rather than years, so cynicism around the “90 per cent swimmable by 2040” target is unfair.

But what positive measures there are in the water clean-up plan have been spectacularly poorly communicated.

Here, the Government is its own worst enemy. It launched this strategy from the back foot, as a back down from its widely deplored goal of “wadeable” rivers. New Zealanders have a deep cultural attachment to swimming in their rivers. Unlike Europe and Asia, we have a small population, a fairly short ­history of large-scale agriculture, and industrial-scale intensive ­dairying has been common only since the 1990s. Aligning water-quality ­standards ­with heavily populated and ­long-­developed Europe is a thinly veiled effort to make the tweaking of the standards look more substantial than it is.

The Government invites further suspicion by changing the measure it uses to define safe water and going wide with the numbers in ­quantifying the problem. It even ­withheld some data crucial to the new strategy because it believed, ­patronisingly, that such detail would confuse people.

When the scrupulously impartial Parliamentary ­Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, says the strategy is “very confusing” and capable of being interpreted as merely shifting some goalposts, it’s no wonder environmental activists remain distrustful. As Wright notes, it’s misleading for the Government to say 72% of our waterways are recreationally safe, when many of those rivers, while pristine, are inaccessible and too cold for recreational purposes anyway.

High-country and remote catchments should be free from E coli and other pollutants, given they are far from towns and farms. For waters accessible to local populations, the proportion dangerously fouled is considerably higher than the implied 28%.

Expert opinion is divided on the reasons for and efficacy of the recalibrated thresholds for allowable E coli presence. The Government says they more realistically account for the wide variations in contamination due to factors such as heavy rain and flooding.

Whether this proves correct, the Government has left the impression it has simply made the swimmability threshold lower, rather than making it harder to pollute waterways.

It’s complicated. There are many factors behind the causes of and remedies for pollution – alas, more so than this strategy acknowledges. The issues deserve more than the usual ­polarising advocacy demonising dairying or selfish townies. The strategy should be expanded to reflect that we’re all in this together. It should also have acknowledged that many ­farmers are already voluntarily fencing ­watercourses and regenerating bush to protect waterways.

It may help, too, that Fonterra’s policy is to refuse polluters’ milk, having already refused to collect from at least one farm with poor effluent disposal, and from all new farms on oil or gas wasteland.

But E coli, and its companions ­campylobacter and salmonella, are not the only unwelcome river additive. Cow urine leaches into the water table and nitrogenises rivers, spoiling habitats and ­fostering toxic algae. Regional councils are ­labouring through the task of setting ­nutrient limits, but in some cases the rights to pollute are in effect being ­grandfathered and the targets soft. There are neither incentives nor disincentives aimed at curtailing the problem. New technology offers some promising potential fixes, but reducing the pollution requires a policy on the intensity of stock numbers – especially in the Waikato and Southland. The Government is reluctant to push this, perhaps hoping stuttering dairy returns will take care of it. They won’t – any more than simply hoping a shift to the regions will solve Auckland’s sewerage problems, which contributed to 10 beaches being declared unswimmable over the summer just gone.

To a Government that is fond of boasting about its ­“comprehensive plans”, it’s fair to say: this is a good partial plan for clean waterways; where’s the rest of it?

Photo:Getty Images

This article was first published in the March 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.