The Labour Party along with the Green Party and NZ First at the 2017 election promised to make a positive start to cleaning up rivers. Protest bill boards testify to rivers being a foremost issue with 80% of New Zealanders. Over three years later there is still inaction

Our waterways create health problems

Opinion by Ken Sims, Life member NZ Federation Freshwater Anglers.

A recently published article by Denise Piper in the Sunday Star Times showing 65 percent of our rivers are “unswimmable” in a country of just 5 million people, should remind government that that the continuing state of New Zealand’s rivers is a national calamity.

It is a disgraceful, shameful reflection on the failure of successive governments to remedy a water crisis that has been worsening over decades.

The report stated that the criteria used “looks only at bacteria levels.” Even there, we have one of the highest rates of zoonoses in the developed world. A zoonosis is an infectious disease that has passed from an animal to humans. Such pathogens may be bacterial, viral or parasitic, and can spread to humans through direct contact or through food, water or the environment. They represent a major public health problem around the world due to humans’ close relationship with animals in agriculture, exacerbated by large, concentrated populations.

Sediment runoff and nitrate seepage

New Zealand’s water crisis goes far deeper. We also have one of the highest rates of sediment runoff, which smothers all life in a waterway. Sediment runoff is accelerated by land uses such as intensive agriculture and forestry clear felling, the latter immediately exposing the bare soil to subsequent rain. 

But even in clear water, contamination may be present. Clear water can contain high nitrate levels from dairying runoff, which is cannot be controlled by riparian planting on margins. When concentrated further by low flows from irrigation draw-offs and warmed by shade removal, the inevitable result is toxic algal blooms – and unswimmable rivers. Another unseen effect of algal blooms is that during the day they actually produce oxygen, but at night the reverse occurs, and they suck oxygen out of the water, creating hypoxic dead zones.

The alarming aspect to governments’ failure is that some administrations have gone beyond doing nothing to aggravating the crisis by encouraging degrading land uses. For example, the National government of 2008 -17, took deliberate steps to accelerate the practice of intensive dairying into dry, low rainfall environments on inappropriate soils such as the Mackenzie basin and Canterbury Plains, made possible only by draining rivers and aquifers for irrigation.

The then government led by John Key and Minister for the Environment Nick Smith sacked a democratically elected council in Environment Canterbury (ECan) and replaced it with its own hand-picked commissioners, to speed up approvals for dairying development, largely by corporate interests. It was an affront to democracy and the environment – and human health. The consequences have been catastrophic.

Nitrate levels alarming

The NZ Federation of Freshwater Anglers has measured nitrate levels over recent years and the levels are alarming – toxic to trout, salmon smolt and native fish and also well above safe human health levels. A 2019 Danish study of 2.7 million people reported a strong link between nitrate in drinking water and the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer. This finding has important implications for public health as New Zealand has one of the highest bowel cancer rates in the world.

This is a time for action, not “paralysis by committees” as government both central and local seem to deflect criticism.  Even the latest “assurance” by agriculture minister Damien O’Connor of government now “tweaking” freshwater requirements has a whiff of inappropriate compromise, and “stonewalling because of past inaction.

The clean-up needs to be started immediately and be science based. Government needs to act on the advice its own scientists have already given them, as it has so successfully in other areas. 

How woeful that countries like China have more stringent water standards than New Zealand. 

How pathetic that both national and regional government have been able to kick this can down the road for future generations to have to deal with. 

The NZ public deserves and expects better.