Editorial: We must clean up our waterways to prove we are clean and green

Environment Minister Nick Smith.
FAIRFAXNZ

Environment Minister Nick Smith.

Editorial: It would be easy to be cynical about a petition calling for cleaner rivers and streams. 

An organisation that calls itself Choose Clean Water wants the Government to raise its official minimum standard for our waterways from "wadeable" to "swimmable".

 This seems a modest enough goal, but Environment Minister Nick Smith is anxious to pour cold water on these laudable dreams. Some of our waterways, he says, would have been unswimmable even before humans had arrived in this country. This would have been a surprise to those who thought New Zealand used to be clean and green.

Nick Smith, Minister for the Environment.
JOHN BISSET/FAIRFAX NZ

Nick Smith, Minister for the Environment.

No doubt Smith has a point. We have waterways where large native bird populations pollute the rivers, he says, and the only way to clean them up would be to kill the birds. Volcanoes and huge storms are other sources of "natural pollutants" that can make rivers and streams not only not swimmable but possibly even "unboatable".

But this is to set up a straw person and knock it down. Smith may have proven it's impossible to make all our waterways swimmable all the time. But that is not the actual political issue. The real question is: what can the Government reasonably require to improve the quality of our waterways? 

Smith says he is prepared to toughen up the rules on industry, on urban areas, on the farming sector and on councils so that every family can at least "find a place that they can safely swim". But this is not setting the bar very high. New Zealand is a small country and most of our families could find a waterhole to bathe in.

The Government's detailed proposals for water quality – open for public consultation till later next month – have already been criticised for their lack of ambition. When the Government's proposals were unveiled in February, Fish & Game chief executive Bryce Johnson said they were a win for agriculture and a defeat for the environment. 

Johnson noted the long lead-in time for stock, especially dairy cattle, to be excluded from waterways. This, he said, was "completely out of step with public sentiment". On the other hand, Federated Farmers seemed to be not displeased with the Government's proposals. The difficulty for Smith is that once again he sounds like a minister from a farmers' government.

 The Tourism Export Council backed this week's petition– many visitors come here because of our "clean and green image", says chief executive Lesley Limmick. Water quality was the single greatest challenge to maintaining the country's environmental "promise".

Nobody could  disagree. It is now sheer banality to point out the gap between the image and the reality: those who haven't heard that we are not nearly as clean and green as we claim really are behind the times.

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At some point, the now well-understood gap threatens to do real  damage to our $11 billion tourism industry. And at that point, Smith's protestations about our "comparatively good" environmental standards and the fact that there were dirty rivers even before human habitation will be so much wind.

 - Stuff

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