Keeping your head above water

The way critics of the freshwater management policies tell it, this Government has just capitulated to dirty dairying by allowing rivers to degrade to the point where you can't swim in them.

At its simplest, this claim is backed by the fact the new National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management and its accompanying National Objectives Framework require only that lakes and rivers be clean enough for wading and boating.

That's a minimum level, which Opposition parties are portraying as an inadequate cop-out, which makes a powerful political narrative ahead of a general election in which the centre-Left desperately needs some wins.

The Green Party has taken leadership on the issue, reducing the eye-watering complexity of a new freshwater regime down to "swimmable" versus "wade-able" waterways

In the court of public opinion, the idea that freshwater bodies - and the sea, for that matter - should be "swimmable" is obvious and attractive. Note, however, that no-one is saying all freshwater bodies should have water so clean that it's drinkable.

That really would be expensive. However, by setting its bar for water quality at swimmable, the Greens have left a frustrated Environment Minister Amy Adams floundering, for want of a better word.

Her instincts are rational and methodical - often unhelpful traits in the incandescent world of pre-election political rhetoric.

She is right that the plan her government has spent five years devising, through the collaborative process known as the Land and Water Forum, has produced the first coherent set of national rules for freshwater management, ending a policy review process that started under Labour and failed to land.

It's also true that this outcome is not a moment too soon.

Since 2000, agricultural intensification, especially dairying, has rapidly taken the country from having plenty of freshwater to share among competing users to over-allocation in many of our most economically and environmentally significant catchments.

Without this new regime, the deterioration in availability and quality of freshwater would get only worse.

Adams also knows, as does everyone involved in the LAWF process, that it may take up to 80 years for some of the pollutants that have leached into waterways from farming, industry, towns and cities to sluice their way through the water table.

In other words, making a river swimmable will take far longer than writing the press statement promising it.

To her, swimmability is a fine goal but not appropriate as a minimum standard.

"It is not the Government's intention to require every stormwater drainage channel across New Zealand to be suitable for swimming, because of the significant costs this would impose unnecessarily," she said.

Where Adams is truly vulnerable is in two other details of the new policy.

Firstly, there is no requirement at the national level that water bodies be improved from their current state unless they're below the minimum threshold, Category C, aka good for wading and boating. If a waterway is so dirty it's in Category D, regional councils must enact a plan to get it up to at least Category C.

Only at Category A or B status does it become safe for swimming, but the policy doesn't require regional councils to do any more than maintain water quality at current levels.

Secondly, water quality measures will be "within a region", meaning water quality could worsen in one place if it improves in another.

In theory, these escape clauses could freeze current water quality at current levels, except for the very dirtiest.

Yet in practice, that's unlikely. The new regime requires regional councils to consult their communities and collaborate to set its water quality standards. If the LAWF process is a guide, there will be plenty of voices in every community seeking cleaner water, many of them farmers who understand New Zealand needs clean water to be a clean food producer.

What they need, however, is time to adapt.

It's here that Green and Labour policy would apply far more stick than National's.

As Rabobank pointed out this week, the cost of complying with environmental regulation will challenge farmers' competitiveness, with water regulation at the top of the list.

"More fundamental research and innovation about how to retain and use nutrients within farming systems in cost-effective ways, rather than leave them in the system where they become problematic for water quality, is essential for New Zealand to maintain its competitiveness among dairy exporting countries," said the bank's New Zealand chief executive, Ben Russell.

Mind you, if dairying is the biggest threat to freshwater quality, then this week's further slump in global dairy prices might yet be good news.

With the rest of the world's dairy producers responding to high prices, global over-supply is looming in the next few years.

If that slows down dairy conversions in New Zealand, that might help take some of the pressure off the demands on one of our most precious resources.

Fairfax Media