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Why Green isn’t the best colour for water

Why Green isn’t the best colour for water

Ian Mackenzie is Federated Farmers Environment spokesperson and was on the reference group for the National Objectives Framework. An opinion is also running in the New Zealand Herald.

The Green Party recently launched its water policy and before looking at what they propose, I need to explain what’s been recently gazetted.

The National Policy Statement (NPS) for freshwater may not have razzmatazz, but arose from that exercise in consensual collaboration called the Land and Water Forum [LawF]. It was the first time industry, councils, government departments and groups from Federated Farmers to Fish & Game, sat down to openly address water issues and find solutions.

At the heart of the NPS are our regional councils, who have been tasked with maintaining and improving water quality while bringing the poorest water quality up to a national minimum standard. With next to no exceptions, this policy applies to all water bodies whether they are in town or country. This was an essential part of the LawF consensus and the government chose secondary human contact as the national minimum standard. All of New Zealand’s top water scientists were involved in this.

The Green Party claim they are advocates for the environment and I would have thought they would have welcomed this important piece of legislation; whose intent is to keep New Zealand’s fresh water as the best in the world.

Being a farmer and with so many conflicting claims about water quality you may be dubious about what I am saying. For an objective ‘warts and all’ water picture, can I direct you to the Land and Water Aotearoa (LAWA) website at www.lawa.org.nz. It confirms our water quality is generally good, with many rivers and streams improving thanks to farmers’ efforts at riparian protection.

What we know is that most swimming spots monitored by regional councils over the warmer months are generally satisfactory for swimming. The Greens often claim “60 percent of our water” is unsafe, but a vast number of sites are affected by urban runoff.

Now, the Green Party wants to make all water bodies swimmable. This is disingenuous because of the sheer difficulty and cost of achieving it.

There are 425,000 kilometres of waterways in New Zealand, which would have to meet those swimming standards, 24 hours a day and 365-days of the year.

The LAWA website states, “rivers and streams in (or downstream of) urban areas tend to have the poorest water quality (the highest concentrations of nutrients and bacteria, and lowest macroinvertebrate community index (MCI) scores).” This is because all our urban storm water systems are designed to use urban rivers and streams to take away all this run-off.

The Landcare Trust is running a community project to clean up some of the urban streams that flow into the Tamaki River. Regardless of that effort and enthusiasm they will never be able to stop those streams from being contaminated to the extent that they will become safe for swimming. Think of the 150-page NZ Standard for public swimming pools, “to ensure the risk to public health is minimised.” Most small schools have had to close their swimming pools because of problems maintaining that and other standards. Trying to apply that standard to all fresh water bodies is a nonsense.

This is where the Green Party is disingenuous.

When they say ‘all water bodies,’ they really mean only those in the countryside because they do not wish to alarm their core urban constituency. The Green Party ignores the huge shift in farmers’ attitude towards environmental stewardship and underplays quantum leaps in management and mitigation of farm nutrients, the fencing of waterways, riparian planting, the strategic application of fertilisers and nutrient budgeting and the effects these are having on improving water quality. The Greens do not mention that many of the sites NIWA test for its National Rivers Network that fail swimming standards are in fact rivers and lakes affected by urban run off. Instead they continue to blame farmers.

Farmers like me acknowledge that there is a lot more work we need to do and the vast majority of us are adopting practices and spending tens of millions of dollars a year which, given time, will sort out our contribution. But we are not the sole cause or the sole solution. River quality reports are already showing the benefit of a change in farmers’ attitude toward environmental stewardship, but this narrative doesn’t fit the Green’s script.

The NPS by contrast will be law. It gives communities the power to decide how much progress needs to be made and over what timeframe. It specifically encourages communities to decide what they want for their rivers and lakes while balancing that with the costs to society and the economy. It has the fish hook that over time, all water bodies will have plans for how they will meet community aspirations, so if the students of North Dunedin decide they wish to swim in the Leith at anytime and the ratepayers of that great Southern town can afford it and are prepared to prioritise that spending over all other, then that is their choice. My guess is the cost will have that city’s burghers muttering darkly at their haggis and prevarication will win. That’s been the case in most major urban centres.

The NPS may not have the sexy but implausible sound bite, ‘swimmable for all,’ but it gives that choice to the community to decide. It is practical, pragmatic and is the law. With water we’re in this together and the NPS underscores that.


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