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Nick Smith tweaks freshwater swimming standards

Nick Smith tweaks freshwater swimming standards

By Pattrick Smellie

Aug. 9 (BusinessDesk) - Environment Minister Nick Smith has tweaked the government's freshwater swimming standards in his latest bid to overcome criticisms that standards announced earlier this year were not only too complex, but also weakened earlier proposals for the levels of faecal contamination allowable in water bodies.

Smith made the announcement this afternoon to the Environmental Defence Society's annual conference, which has become the latest venue for the National and Labour parties to announce competing policies. Last Sunday, the two parties announced competing Auckland transport policies, while today Labour's new leader Jacinda Ardern unveiled a policy to charge a royalty on bottled water and a levy on commercial water takes, including irrigation.

Smith's announcement essentially confirms the decisions announced earlier this year, when the government unveiled a major concession in its approach to freshwater management by shifting from a goal of "wadeable" waterways to a "swimmable" standard.

However, the way the new standards for contamination by e. coli, derived from human or animal excrement, caused both confusion and accusations that the government was allowing higher levels of e. coli than previously.

Smith attempted but lost the argument politically that the e. coli standards had not changed and were intended to give a range of limits depending on whether a river was flowing normally or was in flood, when contaminants of all kinds are often present in freshwater bodies.

Today's announcement, which includes some five categories and four technical tests for freshwater quality in a new National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management to be gazetted officially tomorrow, effectively includes detail that was in technical notes but not included in the body of the draft NPS. "The policy now includes all four statistical tests used for determining which rivers are excellent, good, fair, intermittent or poor, and clarifies the risk" of infection between 1 percent and more than 7 percent across five categories.

"The major controversy over the proposals was over the grading system for swimmability," said Smith. "

The NPS will also require the country's 16 regional councils, which will administer the standards, to measure macro-intervertebrate life in waterways - essentially a measure of insect life. This was previously regarded as science that was in its infancy.

Smith defended the government's efforts to bring in new freshwater standards, saying they matched and in some respects were more demanding than those applied in Europe, and that in his international search for policies to draw on, he had found very little guidance and considerable interest in what New Zealand is attempting.

After gazetting, regional councils will have until March 31, 2018 to set preliminary regional targets for their waterways and until the end of next year to finalise their contribution.

While public attention had focused on e. coli levels, the biggest challenge facing New Zealand waterways was in fact the rising level of nitrification, at a time when most other indicators of waterway health were showing improvement.

In a dig at the Labour water charging announcements, Smith suggested that if the charge for water were set at 10 cents a litre, it would make the cost of a bottle of milk $40 since it takes 4000 litres of water to produce one litre of milk, earning a shout of "rubbish, Nick" from Labour water spokesman David Parker, seated in the audience.

Labour is proposing a cents per litre charge for pristine bottled water but a much lower charge based on cents per thousand litres (or cubic metre). Parker has indicated today that if the 5 billion cumecs (cubic metres per second) of water used annually for irrigation attracted a 1 cent per cumec charge, that would raise $50 million, which would be returned to regional councils and used to settle Maori claims to freshwater rights under the Treaty of Waitangi.

An earlier session of the conference heard a more fundamental challenge to New Zealand farming than a charge for water.

Rosie Bosworth, a strategic planner at the consultancy Rethink X produced a series of real-world examples of food production techniques that are being commercialised and would not only slash water and land use but challenge the ongoing use of animals to produce meat, wool, and fibre within the next decade.

She criticised New Zealand's various agricultural sectors for failing to collaborate on responses to this challenge, saying it there had been "enough f...ing around".

"Do it tomorrow because we have got about five years before this hits our shores like a massive tsunami."

(BusinessDesk)

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