Water front and centre

Water is one of the hot topics this election, and is becoming one of the issues of our time.

From quantity to quality, rights to royalties, seldom it seems has this substance — that is fundamental to life and leisure in New Zealand — been so fiercely debated.

Labour has been under the pump for its proposal to put a tax or ‘‘royalty’’(as it prefers) on water. This would apply to water used for irrigation and for those bottling our water for sale. The result has divided many. A few believe the tax should be much more substantial than the 1c or 2c per 1000 litres proposed. Indeed, the Greens are pledging to put an immediate 10c-a-litre levy on sales or exports of bottled still and sparkling water. Farmers and horticulturists, however, fear any tax would put them out of business. And the whole suggestion has reignited the debate over who ‘‘owns’’ or has rights over water.

National has been under pressure over water quality under its watch. The situation has become ugly. The most blatant comment has been by artist Sam Mahon (son of the late Justice Peter Mahon), who placed a statue of Environment Minister Nick Smith, with his pants down squatting over a drinking glass, outside the headquarters of Environment Canterbury (the artist has previously made a sculpture of Dr Smith’s head made from cow dung).

ECan has been under a government-appointed commissioner since 2010 and there is unease over the intensification of dairying in the province during that time.

Emotions are running high on the water quality issue, after successive reports highlighted the decline in our freshwater and there have been mixed responses about the Government’s fixes.

In a report in April, Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, said our waterways had gone beyond a tipping point, might take more than 50 years to recover — and in some cases never return to their original state.

He did not lay blame, making clear the damage had been done under successive governments and policies and was the result of agricultural intensification, urban expansion, industrial pollution, hydroelectric development and the effects of drought, but he said conservation and economic development had been seen in isolation, and our water monitoring was far from perfect.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, has also painted a bleak picture, particularly in Canterbury and Southland, where phosphorus and excess nitrogen has accumulated in waterways as a result of land use changes from forestry to sheep farming, then dairying.

The Government has committed to a new freshwater quality target — to have 90% of rivers and lakes meeting swimmable health standards by 2040 — but was immediately criticised for simply changing the measures.

The latest water-quality warning comes from a national fishing group, the Federation of Freshwater Anglers, which has released a ‘‘Lost Rivers of the South Island’’ map, which uses skull and crossbones symbols to denote the 70-plus rivers the organisation says are now ‘‘unfishable or have declined because of intensive farming and large-scale irrigation’’. Four Otago rivers — the Lindis, Pomahaka, Waitaki and Kakanui — are on the unenviable list. The group is gathering data on the Taieri and Manuherikia rivers, after anecdotal evidence showed they might also be at risk.

It comes only days after the second pre-election leaders’ debate, where Bill English and Jacinda Ardern were asked what river was their favourite as a child, and whether they would still swim in it. (Mr English said yes to Southland’s Oreti River and Ms Ardern no to putting her head under the Waikato).

It was a good question. Our elected leaders are going to have to put their (our) money where their mouth is — even if they won’t put their mouths underwater.


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