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Norman: Making our rivers clean enough to swim in

Making our rivers clean enough to swim in again and keeping our beaches safe from oil spills

Russel Norman 2014 election Green Party environmental priority speech

13 July 2014


Tēnā koutou Tēnā koutou Tēnā koutou katoa.

He mihi nui ki te tangata whenua o Waikato River, a mighty river of many hapū and iwi.

I’d like to acknowledge their whakapapa, which binds them to this awa, and the many campaigns they have fought to protect and restore this river to health and the value of their leadership across the region.

At the beginning of 2008 I began campaigning to clean up New Zealand’s rivers.

Since then, I have kayaked across, waded though, swum in, walked around, and fallen in love with rivers and lakes right across the country.

The Rakaia with its braids and sheer power; the Kaituna with its amazing waterfalls; the Mokau with its towering bluffs.

Being in and around these waterways can be a majestic experience….mythical even, but it is also heart-breaking.

Unfenced streams, cows in rivers, poor land uses, industrial discharges, and dams and irrigation projects are choking waterways, dirtying our drinking water, killing our fish and threatening our wildlife.

The dirty lowland rivers across New Zealand are a stain on our collective responsibility to love and protect our beautiful country.

During my years of campaigning, I have spoken with farmers, scientists, kayakers, local hapū and iwi, fishers, and river guardians of all descriptions - from the top of the country to the bottom.

I have spoken at innumerable public meetings, conferences of all descriptions, and argued the case in Parliament against Ministers from this Government and the last Government who have all failed in their duty as guardians of our waterways.

I have met with and paddled alongside hundreds of people dedicated to cleaning up and protecting their local river, lake or stream.

Nearly seven years on and New Zealanders are much more aware of the problem of polluted rivers, but the situation, I’m sad to say, is worse than ever.


Some of our waterways are suffering from toxic algal blooms, others are choking on sedimentation and faecal contamination, and others are drying up from over use.

Last summer, nearly two thirds of monitored river swimming sites around New Zealand were identified as unsafe for swimming.

Warning signs pepper our river banks: “do not swim” / “polluted water”.

One third of our lakes are considered unhealthy.

74 percent of our native fish species are endangered or in decline.

This is not the New Zealand we know and love.

This is not the legacy we want to pass on to the next generation.

John Key’s approach to our rivers’ crisis is to dismiss the problem and rubbish the science.

To his credit, he has been very consistent in this approach.

You might recall him coming unstuck on the BBC’s current affairs programme Hardtalk back in 2011.

The programme was watched, embarrassingly enough, by 200 million viewers around the world.

Presenter Stephen Sackur questioned the validity of New Zealand’s 100% Pure claim, citing our degraded rivers.

“100 percent is 100 percent and clearly you’re not 100 percent. You’ve clearly got problems with river pollution”.

Key tried to fight statistics with cosmetics. “Any person who goes down and looks at New Zealand…” he mumbled.

I think even John Key, if he bothered to get out himself and take a good look at the state of rivers, would have to admit something is wrong. Many of our rivers now literally stink because they are so contaminated.

He was at it again just a couple of weeks ago, disputing the science on TVNZ’s Q and A programme.

As scientist Mike Joy puts it, Key employs “tobacco science” – questioning established data in order to try and make it seem uncertain.

There is nothing uncertain about the crisis unfolding with our rivers. There is no grey area or room for doubt. We are destroying them. And we have limited time left to turn this around.

Intensive dairy is the driving force behind the deterioration over the last decade.

New Zealand has half a million more dairy cows than in 2008, when the National Government was first elected.

One dairy cow produces 14 times more waste than a human, so those additional 500,000 cows is the same as seven million people doing their thing directly onto our rural land.

Meanwhile, fertiliser use has risen by 20 percent between 2009 and 2012, which also adds to the pollution running off into streams and rivers.

Earlier this month I challenged the Prime Minister in Parliament to name one scientist who disputes that intensive agriculture is polluting our rivers.

He couldn’t.


The Green Party has worked hard over many years to put rivers on the political agenda, which is where they need to be when you have such a dismissive government.

National’s water rules are focused on allowing more pollution rather than ensuring our rivers survive and are safe for swimming.

In 2011, it implemented a National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management that completely ignores the main source of water pollution: land use changes and agricultural intensification.

Then, just over a week ago, it rolled out its National Objective Framework for freshwater – which is essentially bottom lines for water quality.

Again, the framework ignores land use change and agricultural intensification.

But it goes further….it sets the bar for acceptable water quality, not at water clean enough to swim in, but water clean enough for wading and boating.

This is known as “secondary contact recreation”.

It means dipping your toe in, but not diving in, not swimming in, not sticking your head under.

And even then the Government has said water quality can drop to a level that leaves waders and boaties at "moderate risk of infection".

Hardly encouraging.

Next thing you know we’ll be welcoming tourists to 100% Pure New Zealand, but warning them to “please stay in the boat”.

To add insult to injury, National has chosen “toxicity” as the threshold for nitrate pollution.

I think we’d all agree that once something is toxic, it’s often too late.

Imagine if you applied the toxicity approach to something like alcohol.

You could drink five tequilas and two whiskeys and still not be considered “toxic”.

But what has it done to your body? It’s still not a safe or sustainable level of alcohol consumption and over the long term that kind of intake would do a huge amount of damage.

National’s framework would allow some New Zealand rivers to have as much nitrogen pollution in them as the polluted Yangtze River in China.

This is not even an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach.

It’s an ambulance-never-leaves-ambulance-bay approach.

If you think New Zealanders should be safe to swim in without getting sick, you’re not alone.

Around 90 percent of public submissions on the National Framework called for this.

The Government has chosen to ignore these people.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has criticised National’s freshwater framework, saying the scale of land use change and the increasing nutrient loads allowed under it will result in a worsening of water quality in the short to medium term and make the job of improving water quality much harder in the longer term.

Former Prime Minister and architect of the Resource Management Act Sir Geoffrey Palmer has also criticised the framework saying it contains “no guarantee that the existing state of New Zealand’s freshwater will actually improve”.

So absolutely no guarantee that things are going to get better for our struggling rivers and lakes.

You’d think not one National MP had ever lain on a warm rock by a cold river, had a picnic by a stream, or swung from a rope swing into a glassy lake.

A Dominion Post editorial on Wednesday called the Government’s water policy “timid and shallow”.


It’s not just New Zealand rivers under threat.

National’s rolling out of the red carpet for foreign oil companies is also putting our beautiful beaches at risk.

Catching a wave or a fish, building a sandcastle, or just lying about on a beach is a Kiwi birthright.

But the Government is risking these age old Kiwi pleasures with its deep sea drilling agenda.

John Key likes to pretend an oil spill couldn’t happen in New Zealand, but he cannot guarantee it won’t.

I remember watching with horror on TV the devastation when in 2010 the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and sank, leaking 600,000 tonnes of oil into the ocean.

This accident unfolded in a distant place. It felt shocking but far away.

Yet just one year later, the Rena made oil on our beaches a reality.

All of a sudden we had people in hazmat suits clearing oil from the beach, dead birds washing up along the coast, and shops closing on main streets.

I put on a white boiler suit myself to help painstakingly clean up oil. I visited the bird recovery centre, I saw a huge object in a plastic garbage bin, and to my horror, when someone pulled it out to show me, I found it was a beautiful albatross, dead, covered in oil. A wingspan as wide as I am tall.

Suddenly it was here and real. This wasn’t an American horror story. It was a New Zealand horror story.

And yet the Government has done almost nothing to prevent this tragedy from unfolding again.

Not only has it failed to take steps to protect New Zealand from another shipping accident like the Rena, but it has made an oil spill in New Zealand more likely by opening up New Zealand to the risks of deep sea drilling.

New Zealanders deserve our beaches open for swimming, not closed for oil spills.


Today we are announcing that the Green Party’s number one environmental priority for this election is making our rivers clean enough to swim in again and keeping our beaches safe from oil spills.

River protection is part of this, and is the component I’m launching today, but we will have further announcements between now and the election that deal more specifically with beaches and other parts of the plan.

Today I am announcing that in Government, the Green Party will:

Establish a protected rivers network to permanently safeguard our most precious rivers.

New Zealand currently has a network of national parks and reserves to permanently protect the best of our landscapes and habitats but we don’t have a similar system for permanently protecting our best rivers.

We will put one in place.

The protected river network will stop the destruction of rivers from irrigation, dams and pollution, above and beyond the normal protections afforded by minimum standards, while retaining the full right of all New Zealanders to use the rivers for food gathering and recreation.

Iwi and hapū will be involved in the protection plan process at each step, in recognition of their kaitiakitanga and rangatiratanga.

We will also keep our wild rivers wild by not building any new dams on them.

We will overhaul and strengthen the current weak National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.

This will include implementing changes recommended by the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society, the key professional society for practitioners in freshwater science and management in New Zealand.

The changes will ensure that no water body in New Zealand is allowed to degrade further.

We will implement a strong National Environmental Standard for water quality that requires councils to ensure our rivers and lakes are clean enough for swimming. This standard would set maximum levels for nitrogen, phosphorus, zinc, cadmium and other contaminants allowed in our rivers and set minimum levels for clarity, dissolved oxygen, invertebrates, and other indicators of river health.

And finally, we will implement a National Environmental Standard for water flows and levels in rivers.

This will set a threshold for the amount of water that can be taken from our rivers for the purposes of industry and farming. It will make sure that there is enough water left for the ecosystem to thrive and for people to use the river safely.

Together these policies will go a long way towards cleaning up our rivers.

We are determined to make every single New Zealand river clean enough to swim in.

In the coming weeks, we will release further policies to complement this plan.


Over 180,000 kilometres of rivers meander and roar through New Zealand.

They are our lifeblood – culturally, spiritually, economically.

I think New Zealanders intrinsically understand this. Our waterways are part of who we are.

Our kids, and many generations to come, deserve a New Zealand in which our rivers are once more alive with birds and fish, and safe to swim in.

The Green Party has consistently shown leadership over this crucial issue, and we’ll continue to do so.

We have a vision of how our rivers and beaches should be - healthy and thriving - and we have the policies to get there.

A number of high profile New Zealanders have joined us in our efforts to clean up Kiwi rivers.

And I’d like to end today with the words of one of them – poet Brian Turner:

A river is never silent. Even its

deepest pools thrive with dark

or dreamy utterance. They shelter

more than we can say we know

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