Wading into water quality debate

''Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.''

The words from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner conjure powerful images and emotions.

The Green Party seems to be using a similar message to push its top environmental priority for the September election: to make rivers clean enough to swim in again, and protect beaches from oil spills.

The plan for clean rivers, announced on Sunday, is the first of a series of announcements the party plans to make during the election campaign - and it says it will outline specifically how it will achieve those goals.

The rivers policy has three key points: ''to establish a protected rivers network'' which would offer similar permanent protections as national parks and stop the destruction of rivers by irrigation, dams and pollution; ''to set robust standards that ensure rivers are clean enough for swimming'' by implementing national environmental standards for water quality and water flows; and to '' keep our wild rivers wild by not building any new dams on them''.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman says: ''The Green Party has a vision for New Zealand where families can head down to their local swimming hole or beach and jump right in the water without worrying about getting sick.''

He says latest figures show ''nearly two-thirds of our monitored river sites are too polluted for swimming, one-third of our lakes are unhealthy and three-quarters of our native freshwater fish are at risk of extinction'' and National's weak water quality standards mean New Zealanders have a one in 20 chance of catching a vomiting bug or diarrhoea just by touching the water.

It is an unashamedly emotive policy delivery, designed to appeal to the hearts and minds of New Zealanders who, for generations, have enjoyed a variety of water-related recreational pursuits.

While the policy clearly tugs at the heartstrings, the statistics are nonetheless concerning.

The figures Dr Norman quotes are from the Ministry for the Environment, which found last year 61% of monitored rivers were so polluted they were unsafe for swimming.

Its 2012 report showed 52% of sites were unsafe.

A water quality report at the end of last year by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright painted a bleak picture, particularly in Canterbury and Southland, with accumulated phosphorus and excess nitrogen in waterways as a result of land use changes from forestry to sheep farming then dairying.

Dr Wright at the time acknowledged the importance of the farming sector, but said New Zealand faced a classic ''economy versus environment dilemma''.

The National Government has been working on freshwater reform, although its requirements have been slammed as woefully inadequate by the Greens.

In turn, Environment Minister Amy Adams dismissed the Greens' plan as costly and impractical; Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce described the policy as ''cartoon-like'' and raised questions about the sites being monitored.

There is also acrimony after Internet Party leader Laila Harre, a former Green Party adviser, stole the Greens' thunder ahead of their weekend announcement, with a similar water quality policy last week, showing there is no love or loyalty lost in the battle for the ballot box.

Political posturing aside, what remains murky is the Greens' detailing of the impact of their policy on the farming sector.

Policies to ensure New Zealand maintains its ''clean, green'' and ''100% Pure'' tags are vital for individuals and our tourism sector, our second-highest earner.

The policy strives to retain ''the full right of all New Zealanders to use the rivers for food gathering and recreation'' which is also important, but what about those New Zealanders who depend on water to do business, contribute to their communities and the national economy?

Freshwater is a valuable resource and its use undoubtedly requires good management, but further policy announcements from the Greens must contain more details about how negative impacts can be mitigated and primary producers can still have viable operations.

A clean, green, sustainable New Zealand must be economically viable, too.

The Greens have had notable success merging the two with their national cycle network partnership project with the Government, but they face an upstream battle if they cannot get the primary sector at least partly onside with this fundamental policy.

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