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Local And Central Government Need To Get On With Fixing The Freshwater Crisis

A new report backs up Forest & Bird’s view that Cyclone Gabrielle has illustrated the impact of encroaching on floodplains and riverbeds, deforesting our hillsides, and not protecting our wetlands.

The organisation is responding to the Our freshwater 2023 environmental report released by Ministry for the Environment (MfE) and Stats NZ today.

The three-yearly report focuses on the environmental health of Aotearoa New Zealand’s lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, and aquifers. It outlines the issues that affect our waterways and the impacts of those issues for the freshwater environment and for local communities.

“Sadly, little has changed since the last report in 2020, and turning this around is increasingly urgent,” says Forest & Bird Freshwater Advocate, Tom Kay.

In light of the MfE report, Forest and Bird is calling on:

Central government to protect the country’s remaining wetlands by strengthening resource management rules.

Central and local government to restore wetlands to cover at least 20% of their original natural extent. Wetlands filter our water, store carbon, and protect our communities from flooding, sea level rise, and storm surges.

Regional and local councils to monitor activities and enforce existing rules protecting freshwater. Where they aren’t doing this, the MfE must step in and hold councils to account for their responsibilities.

Central government to introduce an emissions pricing scheme for agriculture, and include wetlands in the emissions trading scheme, to incentivise a rapid transition away from intensive agriculture.

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Central, regional, and local government to protect native vegetation from clearance and control pests (particularly deer and possums), and restore forest on steeper hill country, so the forests can filter and retain water, stop silt from eroding from our hillsides, store greenhouse gases, reduce evaporation, and minimise flood damage.

Central government to provide financial support to those councils who agree to move away from engineering rivers and formally adopt an approach of making room for rivers and natural catchment management to address flood risk.

Forest & Bird says local and central government are failing to address issues impacting our freshwater, such as intensive land use, erosion, dams, water takes, pests, plastics, E. coli and pathogens, and wastewater pollution. This failure is threatening the future of all New Zealanders’ wellbeing.

Mr Kay says the report is clear that it's human activities – particularly intensive farming – that have the biggest impact on the health of our water and according to experts there is very little sign in this report that those impacts are reducing.

He says the report’s data, while accurate, is not a full representation of freshwater health now because key pieces of context are missing.

“For example, the report says many sites monitored have good or excellent habitat quality – but doesn’t include information about how unrepresentative those sites are and how limited the monitoring network is. These sites cover only a small proportion of our huge network of rivers and streams.

“It also fails to acknowledge the evidence suggesting groundwater nitrate levels above 1.0 mg/L are a potential risk to human health. Instead, it refers only in passing to this risk, and defaults to the outdated drinking water standard of 11.3 mg/L – around 10 times higher.

“Many of the solutions to improving freshwater quality, such as the policies in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPSFM) 2020, exist or are available already, but the NPSFM plan changes won’t start to take effect until 2025 at the earliest.

“We know councils are working on changes to implement the NPSFM in their regions – but that doesn’t mean they can keep letting things get worse in the meantime.

“Local and central government need to up their game now and use the tools and rules they already have to make rapid changes to support and improve the quality of our nation’s freshwater.

“By protecting our freshwater, we are protecting the wellbeing of future generations – our mokopuna and their mokopuna – from the impacts of destroying the natural ecosystems we all rely on. We just need to act.”

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