Pattrick Smellie: No simple fix to dirty waterways

Beef cattle roam along a Bay of Plenty river bed.
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Beef cattle roam along a Bay of Plenty river bed.

 

OPINION: Much reporting of the prime minister's chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman's research into freshwater resources seemed to shred further the Government's tenuous credibility on this increasingly politicised issue.

Its uncontroversial observation - that human activity in both cities and on farms is at the root of freshwater degradation – was routinely treated as if it were a key finding.

Pattrick Smellie says Gluckman's report attempts to inject nuance into a politicised issue.
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Pattrick Smellie says Gluckman's report attempts to inject nuance into a politicised issue.

Cue hand-wringing on whether New Zealand can intensify its agricultural production any further than it has already.

Yet you will search the Gluckman report in vain for a repudiation of the Government's freshwater management approach.

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Rather, the report untangles both the complexity and the misrepresentation of the Government's bungled announcement in February that it would now pursue "swimmable" rather than "wadeable" waterways.

It attempts to inject a nuance inevitably lacking when such a simple target becomes politically iconic, and when the tide is running against a tired incumbent government on a highly-charged issue.

The report summarises the state of New Zealand's freshwater resources like this: "There is a recent improvement in urban and pastoral areas with regard to phosphate and ammonia."

Hang on, isn't that good news?

The Government would like the country's rivers to be safe to swim in, not just ''wadeable''.
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The Government would like the country's rivers to be safe to swim in, not just ''wadeable''.

Yes. "But degrading trends outnumber improving trends for nitrate and total nitrogens," it continues.

Bad news.

The report also finds a mixed picture on visual clarity and the presence of E coli, with improvements in some places and deterioration in others.

Problematic and urgent? Yes. Apocalyptic? Not feeling it.

On the questions of how and what to measure, the report notes that "swimmable" is not a useful measure for every type of water use.

"The swimmability measures are defined around human health considerations. A much broader range of considerations and measures is needed to manage for potability (drinkability), extraction for agricultural, industrial and urban uses, and ecological and aesthetic considerations."

And for all the blame sheeted home to the dairy industry for water quality deterioration, the report warns it's not that easy.

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"While the public understandably might hope for rapid restoration of water quality across all rivers and lakes in New Zealand, this is unrealistic and scientifically impossible.

"In some cases, we are dealing with contamination that occurred decades ago, and the legacy effects may take a similar time to flush from the system. There are no silver bullets."

Freshwater monitoring is also "imperfect".

Just one example: it's barely five years since large water users, including farms, were first required to install water meters.

Prior to that, water takes were guesswork. The same is true of a host of other new standards, almost all of which are the product of the current Government's eight years of painfully slow policymaking in this area.

Labour was just as slow in its previous nine years and did less.

If anything, the Government created a rod for its own back with the 2015 Environmental Reporting Act, which requires regular monitoring reports by law for the first time.

The first such report on freshwater is due by the end of this month from the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics NZ.

The Gluckman report also pulls apart the canard at the heart of the Government's stumble on its proposed new regime.

That's the suggestion that acceptable contamination levels have been raised to the equivalent of a one-in-20 chance of becoming ill when swimming.

That is nonsense, in essence because such high levels of contamination would only occur during a flood, when the river would be "unswimmable" anyway.

Rivers are not machines, so their measurement requires latitude for real world conditions.In its own cautious and long-winded way, the report concludes that the proposed regime is a big step in the right direction.

"The effect of the changes … is to ensure management that ameliorates continual or repeatable sources of contamination and to force overall and progressive improvements in the safety of the freshwater estate for swimming, with co-benefits for general water quality."

In other words, by all means criticise the pace or ambition of the proposed freshwater management regime.

But drop the pose that the Government secretly wants our lakes and rivers to be dirtier. That is no more than the triumph of an easy slogan over a complex issue.

- BusinessDesk

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