Unclear world of clean and green

The clean, green image on which we New Zealanders pride ourselves and the "100% pure" brand we market to the world are becoming increasingly sullied.

The latest report from the Ministry for the Environment shows more than half (52%) of monitored recreational sites on our rivers are so polluted they are unsafe for swimming. Only 20% of sites were graded good or very good.

Coastal beaches and freshwater beaches at lakes were found to be much cleaner than river sites. Southland was among the worst regions for river quality.

Environment Minister Amy Adams said the country's water quality was good by international standards and most popular sites were fine for swimming but her preference was "for all our sites to be safe for swimming".

However, Green Party environment spokeswoman Eugenie Sage said the results "undermined the credibility" of the 100% pure brand and urgent action was required to align the marketing image with reality. She has called for strong rules and water-quality standards to clean up the country's rivers and "prevent faecal contamination from agricultural intensification".

Of course, while dairy farmers often receive much of the blame for waterway pollution, a recent report also showed local authorities struggled to abide by the conditions of their discharge consents for stormwater and sewage, and industrial wastewater is also often discharged into waterways.

The latest environment report came as a new Bill by Green MP Catherine Delahunty passed its first reading in Parliament. The Bill would tighten the Resource Management Act, which currently allows contaminating discharges with toxic effects and discolouration of waters under "exceptional circumstances", to only allow such discharges for five years so the legislation could not "be used to justify ongoing pollution by councils and industries".

There is no doubt New Zealanders feel protective of our water. Many of us have grown up in and around it - whether it be swimming, fishing or boating - and many weekends and holidays involve some sort of water-based activity.

But the shared resource is valued by different people and groups in different ways, which, of course, creates division when balancing the concerns of environmental groups, the wishes of recreational water users, and the requirements of councils and industries, including agriculture, horticulture, forestry, irrigation and electricity.

Finding that balance is no "quick fix". There has been much discussion and policy-making in recent years about the country's water-quality issues, most notably the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, which came into effect on July 1 last year and forms part of the Government's Fresh Start for Fresh Water reforms.

The aim of the freshwater statement was to increase national consistency in local Resource Management Act planning and decision-making, while allowing for some regional flexibility and to support improved freshwater management in New Zealand.

During the past few weeks, the Otago Regional Council has heard submissions on proposed water-quality changes to its regional plan, designed to prevent run-off in rural areas polluting the region's waterways. The hearings panel said the regional council's approach differed from those in Canterbury and Southland by allowing landowners to do what they liked on their land, provided water discharged from the land met contamination limits.

Many farmers have said the planned changes are unworkable. Some argue they would be forced to reduce stocking rates to comply and that those and other imposed costs would threaten the viability of their operations.

Some detractors argue the blanket rules do not allow for different catchments and soil types in Otago, while others argue the rules are unclear, have created uncertainty and other water-quality management methods would be better. And all this comes, too, before any debate begins on water discharges from urban areas in the province - and any associated costs.

It seems the quality of our water, and the best way to move forward, remains murky. What is clear is that leadership, regulation and co-operation from all parties is required in order to make a real difference for our country, our future - and our overseas image.


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