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Water Quality Becomes Top Environmental Concern

19 April 2005

Water Quality Becomes Top Environmental Concern

New Zealanders are being increasingly concerned about the quality of rivers, streams and lakes, with one in four rating them in a bad or very bad condition.

In a biennial survey by environment specialists at Lincoln University, 19% of respondents ranked water quality as their main environmental concern, compared with only 10 per cent in 2002. The response means that water quality has overtaken air pollution as New Zealanders’ leading environmental concern.

Research leader Dr Ken Hughey says the increase in negative perception is substantial and must be taken into account by policy makers, regulators and resource managers. He says the research shows that local knowledge is generally accurate about the quality of water resources.

“We’ve looked at people’s perceptions about fresh water quality and lined those up against the data and indicators for streams, rivers and lakes – and what we’re finding is that people have a very good feel for their local or regional water resources.

“People are rating New Zealand’s fresh water resources as good or very good overall because they are aware that our major rivers and remote areas like Fiordland have high water quality. But most people live near the coast and are familiar with the state of lowland water reserves – local streams and rivers – which explains why there’s a difference between local and national perceptions.” The survey of 2000 people found:

Pollution issues (air, water, and solid waste disposal) were rated as the most important environmental issue facing New Zealand. Rivers and lakes, wetlands and marine fisheries were perceived to be in the worst state, but were still rated highly; a quarter of respondents (24%) rating them ‘very bad’ or ‘bad’. Rivers and lakes, marine fisheries, and air quality were judged to be the least well managed of the 11 components of the environment studied; More than 30% of respondents considering management to be poor or extremely poor. Management of farm effluent and runoff was perceived to be the least well managed of the environmental problems investigated; There was very strong support (52.8%) for a $20 per year increase in rates to fund lowland stream enhancement; There was very strong opposition to statements that more water could be extracted from large rivers for irrigation (56.9% opposed) and from lowland streams (72.2% opposed); New Zealanders considered the state and management of the environment to be good and better than in other developed countries; Native forest and bush was rated to be in the best state of the 11 components of the environment studied.

The survey asked people to identify up to three main causes of damage to water in rivers and lakes, and to groundwater. Farming (43%) and sewage and stormwater (41%) were identified as the main causes of damage to water in rivers and lakes; and hazardous chemicals (33%) and sewage and stormwater (33%) were perceived to be the main causes of damage to groundwater. Farming, industry and waste disposal were also seen as important causes of damage to groundwater.

Regional responses differed significantly, with southerners more likely to have a positive view of their rivers and lakes. Northerners also rated their groundwater quality lower and were also more likely to feel water quality has declined in the past five years. The central region had a significantly more positive view of current water quality than other regions. Of the ethnic groups, Maori were most likely to perceive water quality as bad and getting worse, whereas those of “other” ethnicities had quite positive assessments. Anglers were significantly more likely than non-anglers to perceive river and lake water quality as ‘bad’.

Dr Hughey says the study raised some major questions about water management and the lack of water management plans in areas such as Canterbury.

“Canterbury uses more freshwater resources than any region in the country and yet none of the four councils studied has an approved water plan for their area. This seems amazing given the level of regional and national concern about water, and given that the Resource Management Act has been in effect for 14 years.”

About the study: “Public Perceptions of New Zealand’s Environment.” Lincoln University has been measuring New Zealanders’ perceptions of the state of the environment, including freshwater resources, through a biennial postal survey since 2000. The purpose of the long term study is to enable comparison of public perceptions with official data on the State of the Environment, to highlight differences in scientific evidence or management initiatives.

The survey measures perceptions of thirteen natural resources, as well as pressures on freshwater, the current and changing state of rivers and groundwater, and quality of the management response to freshwater issues.


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