Image for “Clean, Green” New Zealand’s Rivers in Crisis

*Pic: What legacy are tomorrow New Zealand citizens being left with increasingly depleted and polluted rivers?

New Zealand’s rivers are in a crisis stage with Government intent on using the water to set up corporate dairy farmers. Rivers are going “down the gurgler” in terms of flow and water quality.

Last Saturday (19 March) Christchurch-based “The Press” in the South Island featured a front page article about “trashed rivers.” North Canterbury Fish and Game chairman said the trout fishery had suffered years of environmental degradation. Declining river quality particularly close to Christchurch city has seen rivers suitable for swimming drop from 74 percent five years ago to 64 percent today.

Water is a public resource in New Zealand and trout fisheries by Act of Parliament are publicly owned. Rivers are valuable - indeed vital -  commercially recreationally and ecologically. But there is conflict because of New Zealand government bias towards converting low rainfall areas such as the Canterbury Plains and MacKenzie Basin near Mt Cook, into lush green pasture for corporate dairy farming. That grass growth in very low rainfall regions can only be achieved by irrigation from the underground aquifer or water on the surface in the form of rivers.

Dairying in mega-farm, monoculture style also causes nitrate pollution that leaches into aquifers and rivers.

The government obsessed push for massive dairying expansion is an avarice for money and exports.

But ironically world dairy prices have plunged making dairying a much, much less attractive economic proposition. Dairy farmers, mostly the Kiwi family farm, are struggling with low returns and increasing debt levels. Corporates will survive and fears are overseas investors will snap up dairy farms as the traditional Kiwi farming families are forced to give up.

A key to government’s aim to increase dairying at the expense of rivers, is reforming the Resource Management Act to lower set standards for water quality. Government intends to “reform” freshwater management by amending the Resource Management Act and has been carrying out a roadshow programme for public meetings. But the itinerary shows government seems little interested in the concerns of a worried public.

Andi Cockcroft co-chairman of the Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations (CORANZ) described the itinerary as “underwhelming” with major cities such as Dunedin, Tauranga and New Plymouth left out.

“Since freshwater is a publicly owned resource, the token consultation raises deep concern about government’s sincerity and questions about any likely ulterior motives,” he said.

Ken Sims spokesman for NZ Federation of Freshwater Anglers said the roadshow series of meetings seemed token consultation.

“It’s going through-the-motions exercise without listening,” he said.

Reaction to the proposed reforms has not been supportive of government agenda. Even the Greater Wellington Regional council covering the district of the capital city Wellington and even government’s own environmental watchdog the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright told New Zealand’s Parliament the Bill amending the Resource Management Act (RMA) went too far in stopping people having their say on important environmental matters.”  Proposed amendments include giving the Environment Minister extreme power to shut out certain voices and make changes to local council plans.

The PCE said the powers granted to the Minister were “too wide-ranging.” The RMA is now 25 years old and has been amended many times. Dr Wright also made the point that it may be time for a fundamental rethink about how to protect our environment and how to plan cities.

It is not just dairying that is a factor in declining river quality. A number of urban areas still have inadequate sewage disposal.

All in all however New Zealand’s “clean green” image vital to attracting international tourists and giving New Zealand food exports a “100 percent pure” brand is looking very tattered.

Freshwater ecologist Mike Joy of Massey University has long been a strong advocate for arresting the worsening state of rivers. as to government’s preoccupation with increasing dairying of the corporate kind, he challenges the sustainability of intensive dairy farming in New Zealand, and the myth that the Resource Management Act protects the environment.

“Nitrogen fertiliser use has risen 700 percent in a decade; nitrogen levels at 77 fresh water sites are up.”

Nitrates leaching into rivers and aquifers are a major pollutant.

Back in 2011 Prime Minister John Key was interviewed on BBC Hardtalk about the myth of the country’s “100 percent pure” claim relative to rivers.

John Key found himself having to defend New Zealand’s “100 percent Pure’ slogan as BBC journalist Stephen Sackur grilled him about whether New Zealand really is as clean and green as the tourism campaign suggested.

Stephen Sackur cited Mike Joy, a leading environmental scientist at Massey University, who had said “we (New Zealand government) are delusional about how green and clean we are”.

“That might be Mike Joy’s view, but I don’t share that view,” said Mr Key when Mr Sackur presented him with the quote.

Stephen Sackur then pointed out that Mr Joy was a scientist and would have based his comments on research.

Mr Key replied: “Well he’s one academic, and like lawyers I can give you another one that will give a counterview.”

The Prime Minister said that in comparison to the rest of the world New Zealand is ‘100% Pure’, but Mr Sackur disagreed, saying; “100 percent is 100 percent and clearly you’re not 100 percent. You’ve clearly got problems with river pollution, you’ve clearly got problems with species facing extinction.”

Mr Sackur said Mr Joy blamed decades of poor New Zealand government policy.

That was 2011. Now five years later government seems still in a state of denial about the loss of rivers and the myth about “clean and green” and “100 percent pure.” And the public’s river are being sacrificed.

Tony Orman is a New Zealand journalist and author of outdoor books