National – declaring war on rivers?

Green’s co-leader Russel Norman said this morning on Radio NZ National that the current government’s promise to fund irrigation infrastructure out of asset sales is akin to it making a declaration of war on our rivers. Is that a fair description?

War is a strong word. But there is a battle going on – a battle over more intensive irrigation, and I suspect that includes big dams. The announcement of the irrigation fund seems to leave little doubt as to which side the National government is lining up on.

Yet, this seems a contradiction in kind. Environment Minister, Nick Smith has said he supports the work and recommendations of the Land and Water Forum – and he agrees with the recent Auditor General’s report on the urgent need to improve water quality – by getting tough on polluters.

With intensive agriculture promoted through a fund for large-scale irrigation projects, there is no doubt that water quality will suffer – as the increased effluent and other nutrients have to go somewhere. Extensive R&D is underway to create new ways of managing effluent and other contaminants, so they don’t enter the water system. But is it good governance to make public-spending decisions based on the (at this stage unlikely) assumption that the research will catch up before the damage is irreversible?

The 2009 Resource Management Amendment Act (RMAA) and current moves to further ‘simplify’ it and fast-track processes, are all part of a ‘think bigger’ picture. There is a race to get on with things, to mine resources, to build bigger and more roads, and to move ahead with intensifying productive industries like dairy farming.

And why not? We need to build productivity, to pay down debt like most of the rest of the world. But are we doing enough thinking about the combined effects of this fast-tracking philosophy? Have we considered what the collective result of some of these proposed ‘quick wins’ will be? What are the costs – to our lifestyle, to our choices here in Aotearoa NZ?

According to Massey ecologist Mike Joy, we are already living through the most rapid rates of ecosystem change since colonisation. Here are some stats, before the government’s latest RMA streamlining amendment and its asset-sale-funded irrigation programme.

  • 68% of identified ecosystems are now classed as threatened
  • 90% of wetlands are gone
  • More than 70% of indigenous forest-cover gone
  • Twice as many introduced as native plants, and one-third introduced freshwater and bird species
  • Almost all river-quality monitoring sites show a worsening trend. 43% of them regularly fail to meet bathing standards, in many instances because faecal contamination levels are too high
  • Almost half our lakes are polluted by excess nutrients, and/or over-run by invasive fish. Sediment chokes most of our harbours and estuaries
  • By 2050, on current trends, we will have extinguished native fish in New Zealand. Five threatened species are commercially harvested – none have effective legal protection
  • More than 18,000 and up to 30,000 people contract waterborne diseases every year, from microbial contamination. Of the 70 “best” Waikato waterways, e-coli in more than 50 of them exceeds contact recreation levels (Forest and Bird AGM 2011 and see retired environment Judge D. F. Sheppard’s Reaching sustainable management of fresh water).

Does damming more rivers and polluting more waterways with effluent and chemicals, whether resulting from farm intensification or from some other intensive production process, fit with the stewardship (kaitiakitanga) role New Zealanders agreed to support in 1840, and ratified with our greater commitment to environmental objectives under the RMA (1991) and its amendments?

Personally, I think we need to look ahead – to the future of our children and grandchildren. The actions of this government and its partners seem altogether geared towards short-term gain. Consider the decision to slide out ETS (emissions trading) costs for SOE’s (state-owned enterprises) and agriculture for another two years.

Nick Smith has said today that the decision to put off paying to pollute by another couple of years, is in the interests of kiwi families. But, is it better to have rivers and streams that we can only look at, rather than splash about in? Is it better to lose more and more habitat for endangered species?

Are we better off by supporting a Southland lignite coal mine with a $100,000 million investment in selling dirty coal (lignite) and making dirty-diesel (see the post on lignite mining in Southland), when the Parliamentary Commisioner clearly states we are not? Are we better off with one or two dams on the Hurunui? – when dryland farming has proven to be a productive and sustainable method of farming the land in that area.

While record production levels are being achieved in the dairy industry, it is a battle to reverse the decline of our waterways – some shamefully polluted – like the Manawatu, the Kaipara and Waikato rivers.

Water headlines July 2011

Dairy NZ tell us that Waikato farmers have had their best season ever, generating nearly $3.5 billion in revenue. Northland farms produced 10% more milk than last year, while Waikato milk production increased by 6.5%, according to Dairy NZ’s John Luxton. With a few per cent more profit in their pockets, it should be a good time for those Northland farmers, along the Kaipara and Wairau Rivers especially, to think about ways to farm with less run-off, to keep stock away from vulnerable waterways and wetlands – and to set a time-frame with Council for this to happen.

Good work is being done (see earlier posts for examples). The Lake Taupo restoration project is exciting, as it foreshadows what could be achieved across NZ through active community engagement and partnership, rural and urban. But, as indicated by the Auditor General (see earlier post), our regional Councils need to get tough on polluters. And the government must too. We must enforce the RMA in the way it is intended (Sheppard, 2010). And equally, if adverse effects are more than minor, and enforcement is necessary, then Councils should be prepared to help farmers get the information and resources they need to change the way they farm. Landcare NZ has a critical role to play in this. More investment into funding research and development, education and engagement, and developing new and better farming practices will ensure our land and water resources are treasured and our Pure NZ image and lifestyle is preserved.

Whangarei resident, Millan Ruka recently gained public attention for his crusade to document Kaipara’s pollution problem as he tries – so far unsuccessfully – to urge Northland Regional Council into action over rivers contaminated by farming. Funding future think-big irrigation infrastructure like the twin dam project proposed for the Hurunui from sales of our public assets, means the battle for the rivers may well be won – but not by most New Zealanders. Those with deeper pockets than us may make quick wins – but at such a cost to our natural assets, to our ecosystems, to the lifestyles we value.

New Zealanders already support the notion of kaitiakitanga or stewardship. We acknowledge the need to protect our treasures. Water is arguably the most precious of these. We surely all want to better protect our rivers, lakes and steams – and to have the choice to swim and play in our waterways. Increased commitment to mining lignite, to intensive irrigation and the accompanying ‘big’ infrastructure like dams, comes at a price that I suspect most New Zealanders would not willingly pay – increasing degradation of coastal and fresh water resources and diminishing lifestyle choices for generations to come – is it worth it?

About robynmmoore

Anything to do with people and the environment and I'm interested! I have been writing and commenting about education, the environment and other community-related matters since 2006. I'm a compulsive researcher. In 2009, I finished a thesis on Kapiti's water issues and am still researching outcomes there. This website and the work I do as a trustee for the Whitireia Foundation are part of my aspiration to contribute to 'shaping more sustainable communities'...also the title of my thesis. Look it up - it's free at
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3 Responses to National – declaring war on rivers?

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  3. cyclechallenge says:

    We received another report today of about a hundred cattle breaking down the banks and fouling the Huangarua River near Martinborough. Local residents had had enough and are angry that repeated appeals made to the GW Environment Protection Unit over much of this year to curb the local farmer involved have had no effect. This farmer repeatedly confines the cattle into the river with hot-wires traversing it so cattle are trapped on the banks and in the water.
     We are disappointed that although GW has clear Farmer Guidelines, a Fresh Water Plan and responsibilities under the RMA, it is failing to provide the necessary resources to check farmer compliance and fine them for repeated transgressions.
    Faecal and urine pollution occurring on the Huangarua  River also pollutes the nearby Ruamahanga River into which it feeds: both rivers are used for swimming, fishing and other recreation. Such pollution causes both unwanted algal and bacterial overgrowth and is a health hazard for the region.

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