Ashley River

Rex Gibson is a scientist and ecologist working with the NZ Federation of Freshwater Anglers on environmental issues. In the article below he looks at the failure of central and local government to take the need for clean waterways seriously.

Government backing away 

Opinion by Rex Gibson

The Labour, NZ First and Green Parties all campaigned in the last election on promises to clean up New Zealand’s waterways. However, disappointingly, the latest announcements are as close to a National Party approach as you could get. 

The stream fencing is a good public relations exercise, but three metre margins is a “one-size-fits-all approach” that takes no account of the variability in soil types to transfer nitrates in particular from paddock to waterway. Government has known for some time that artificial nitrogen fertiliser is a major contributor to groundwater nitrate levels yet is imposing only a token limitation on its use. 

Why? The vested interests in the artificial nitrogen sales have clearly had their way at the expense of public health.

Recent work by the New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers using the sophisticated NICO Water Nitrate Analyser has shown that the health of Ashburton residents is already at serious risk from this pollutant. 

Sixty seven water samples from household water bores in and around Ashburton were tested. Most were from farms or lifestyle blocks.  The readings ranged from 13.2 down to 0.06 mg N/L. 

Cancer Risk

Mike JoyWhat do the figures mean? They were referred to Dr Mike Joy (Victoria University of Wellington). He stated “of the samples taken: 

  • 90% exceed increased significant risk of colo-rectal cancer (CRC) levels. 
  • more than 80% were in the group where there was a 15% increased risk of CRC.
  • many were even higher, 54% exceed half current Maximum Allowable Value (MAV). the Ministry of  Health trigger level 
  • 10% exceed MAV. 

Dairying in CanterburyThis situation is occurring in dairying areas across the country. Clearly we have a freshwater crisis that is fast becoming a human health crisis. The costs to Cantabrians of the unrestrained intensification that led to this freshwater contamination as well as other impacts; like less water availability, are becoming more obvious every day. I’m sure this will be looked back on as a very dark time in Canterbury’s History revealing the utter failure of Environment Canterbury (ECan).

The analysis shows that fish are at risk

To the anglers, the data means that only 27 of the 67 water sources would still support trout, cockabullies and other native fish etc., (i.e. the 27 were below the toxicity level for trout of 3.5 mg/L). 

All of the rest – 40 in all – would not, and were also above ECan’s precautionary maximum value for Christchurch water as approved after the proposal by the Waimakariri Water Zone Committee (3.8 mg/L).

A recent Colmar Brunton poll showed that over 70% of New Zealanders still see water quality as a major concern. 

The latest proposals do nothing to significantly reduce the potentially lethal nitrate levels, or the long-term costs for future generations in cleaning up the ongoing environmental poisoning inflicted by the present industrial farming model.

(First published in the magazine for The Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations of NZ Inc