National’s announcement last week on water quality was con job which will not clean up our polluted rivers.
The most important river to most people is the one they live closest to and use. If your local river and my local river are clean enough to swim in, then all our rivers will be clean. This is not too much to ask.
There are many layers of crap in Nick Smith’s announcement, which is why water scientists are outraged. I swim and fish in our beautiful rivers, and I’m outraged too.
For 8 years National have overseen increasing pollution of many rivers and lakes, adopting the pathetic “wadeable” standard while allowing pollution to get worse in many parts of the country. We now live in a country where some aquifers have such high nitrate levels that water from bores cannot be safely drunk by babies. Dogs running along rivers can die ingesting water with poisonous algae.
National’s latest attempt to classify dirty rivers as swimmable should be scorned. They say a river which can sometimes have a 5% risk of illness because of E.coli levels can still be classified as “good” for swimming. This is wrong. We deserve a higher level of confidence that you won’t get crook if you put your head under.
It gets worse. Pages 11 and 39 of National’s document say the new swimmable definition applies where the river “meets the guidelines 80% of the time”. The 80% figure means that for up to 20% of the year the standard does not have to be met.
What a fraud. A river can exceed National’s E.coli limit up to 20 per cent of the time and still be graded as swimmable. 20% is 2.4 months a year. This really irks me. From Christmas until the end of February is less than 20% of the year! River quality generally gets worse in summer when flows are lower and water temperatures are higher. Summertime is also when most people swim in our rivers. It is especially important that our rivers be swimmable then. Any standard which ignores that reality is rubbish. Other rules show this is deliberate.
Take the rule relating to Periphyton – a.k.a slime. Run off from fertiliser and animal excrement causes slime growth. Again this is worst in summer, when flows are low and water temperatures high. National’s proposed rules allow “periodic short-duration nuisance blooms reflecting moderate nutrient enrichment and/or alteration of the natural flow …”. This is deliberately phrased to allow rivers sucked low by irrigation in summer to continue to be used as farm drains growing slime.
Dissolved oxygen levels are also set at levels to enable the farm practice ruining our rivers to be largely unaffected. National’s bottom line on nitrates is also set to protect farming rather than ecosystem health – the bottom line is so low fish-growth is hindered.
After coming into government National spiked the National Policy Statement recommended by former head Environment Court Judge Sheppard after the full RMA process. The core provision of the Sheppard NPS was that increases in farming intensity (more livestock, irrigation or fertiliser per hectare) would no longer be a permitted activity. National hated this core provision, and so ignored it. Their weak substitute NPS has allowed many rivers to degrade further. Their pathetic wadeable standard was rightly ridiculed, as is averaging within catchments.
National caved into their farming backers. For 8 years they have overseen increasing pollution. Poor farm practice has been allowed to get worse. Worse still, they enabled some regional councils to legitimise forms of intensive land use causing pollution that used to be illegal. Diffuse pollution on land polluting waterways has always been illegal unless authorised by an RMA plan rule or resource consent. There is no common law right to pollute. There is no existing use right to pollute under the RMA.
Some farm practices which National has enabled are truly disgusting. It started with dairying, but some of the worst current examples are now atrocious beef feedlots. Beef is booming, like dairying before. Hundreds of cattle in small paddocks are pugging soils, with cattle in mud up to their knees and not a blade of grass in sight. Nutrients are leaching into acquifers below, and tonnes of soil and effluent are getting into rivers and estuaries.
Other poor practices include “spray and pray” in hill country – steep country pasture is killed by aerial spraying, and oversown with brassicas. These steep hills are then heavily grazed over winter, with erosion and effluent clogging our rivers and estuaries. As well, thousands of kilometres of rivers still don’t have fences set-back from the river or lake edge.
If elected, Labour will reissue an NPS on fresh water quality without the trickery. Labour will return to the principles of the Sheppard NPS. This will immediately stop more farm intensification making things worse. It will also require all rivers to be cleaned up to a swimmable standard – measured in summer when people swim.
Labour will reverse the damage wrought under National. Unlike National, we will not subsidise this clean up through taxes paid by others. Just because polluters were allowed to pollute last year does not mean they should get away with it next year.
Fences with decent set-backs to filter sediments and nutrient run-off will be required beside all rivers close to intensive agriculture (low intensity farming without irrigation or other intensive practices in the high country is not the problem). Sustainable nutrient levels (to a swimmable standard) will be required for all catchments.
It is a New Zealand birth-right to be able to swim in our rivers. A dip in your local river on a hot day is a Kiwi tradition. Is it too much to ask that our kids can put their heads under the water without getting sick? What do people come to New Zealand for? Do farmers have the right to undermine our tourism industry?
National, including Bill English and Nick Smith, are patently out of touch. We need a change of government if you want clean rivers.
Labour’s Water Spokesperson