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New report points to upstream battle to keep NZ freshwater clean

It was only a few months ago that John Key was trumpeting our clean waterways on BBC show Hardtalk. Interviewer Stephen Sackur wasn’t suffering fools on that occasion, and neither is a new report released by the Cawthron Institute that says freshwater water pollution is likely to get worse over the coming years.

It was only a few months ago that John Key was trumpeting our clean waterways on BBC show Hardtalk. Interviewer Stephen Sackur wasn’t suffering fools on that occasion, and neither is a new report released by the Cawthron Institute that takes closer look at the implications of the Government’s National Policy Statement (NPS) on Freshwater Management. The report says freshwater pollution is likely to get worse, not improve, over the coming years. 

The report compares the current NPS to the draft NPS recommended by the Board of Inquiry, with the former coming out weaker when compared to the latter. 

Nick Smith announced plans for the NPS in May this year, at the time saying the aim was to give councils stronger national direction when it comes to water management. 

“New Zealand’s fresh water resources are among the cleanest and most abundant of anywhere in the world but problems are developing in our quality and quantity in some areas,” said Smith. “We need to get better rules in place so we don’t end up having to fund major clean ups on rivers like the Waikato and lakes like Rotorua and make more efficient use of water for irrigation and electricity.” 

But getting those rules in place could take too long and that’s where the real problem lies, according to the report’s author, Jim Sinner, who states: 

“The lack of national standards that apply to all water bodies and the likely long period for implementation, combined with new subsidies for irrigation schemes that are likely to result in further intensification of land use, suggest that despite the NPS the condition of New Zealand’s lakes, rivers and wetlands is likely to continue to decline for several more years and possible much longer.” 

Sinner does however acknowledge that were councils to “act promptly to set clear limits and standards” for the highest risk areas of freshwater, combined with “robust methods to achieve these”, then the possibility to halt the decline of some waterways would be possible. By the same token however, he says “experience suggests this is likely to take at least three to five years, and councils are allowed to take until 2030”. 

The findings of the report, which was commissioned on behalf of Fish and Game New Zealand, has not surprisingly yielded some bite back from opposition party members, with Labour water minister Brendon Burn labelling the NPS as a “100% failure” and calling for Smith to resign his portfolio. 

“The report makes a mockery of Government promises to improve water quality,” he says. “Nick Smith has ripped the guts out of the inquiry advice, and, in fact as the report states, his handling of this actually means water quality across our streams, rivers and lakes will continue to get worse.” 

Fish & Game NZ chief executive Bryce Johnson says the findings in the new report now confirm the organisation’s fears.

“Fish & Game and other organisations criticised the NPS for ignoring the Land and Water Forum’s and Board of Inquiry’s key recommendations to have bottom lines for environmental management and a strong, centrally-led strategic direction which puts the environment first,” he says.

“What we have now is the old rhetoric about ‘balance’, which has never been defined and invariably ends up with the environment being the loser."

Green Party Co-leader Russel Norman says that when the NPS was released in May, the Green Party identified that “Nick Smith had pulled the teeth from the Policy”. 

"Nick Smith removed the provision from the draft NPS which requires a resource consent for land use intensification. This is despite the fact that nearly every report on water quality identifies land use intensification as the main cause of water quality decline in New Zealand.

“Nearly half of our monitored rivers are unsafe for swimming, a third of our rivers are unhealthy, and two-thirds of our native freshwater fish are threatened or at risk of extinction.”

Norman, who earlier this year embarked on his own dirty rivers rafting tour to highlight the state of our water, says the report proves the NPS won’t help stem or solve the freshwater crisis. 

The state of our rivers has been under the Cawthron Institute spotlight for sometime now. In 2009, the institute released research showing the Manawatu River tops the list of over 300 rivers and streams across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand as the most polluted.  

You can read up about the NPS HERE and download the full Cawthron Institute report: Implications of the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, HERE.