Editorial: Smith must act to stop rivers turning into drains

Last updated 05:00 19/06/2010

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OPINION: New Zealand's rivers are slowly but surely falling victim to a "she'll be right" approach to water quality.

Environment Minister Nick Smith has conceded that New Zealand has a piecemeal approach to the issue, and that it is grappling with how to deal with the impact of intensive agriculture on freshwater. He looks forward to a system in which rivers are rated from cleanest to dirtiest.

Dr Smith needs to do more than that. He is the minister, and that makes him the man able to do something about the lamentable state of affairs, both when it comes to the pollutants running into rivers and the amount of water that is extracted from them, principally to sate the demands of agri-business.

The Government has been sitting on a report since January that recommended toughening up the regime covering the nation's rivers. It is now waiting for a report on the report from the Land and Water Forum. This Government is not alone in dragging its feet. Labour did little in nine years, despite some tough talk by environment minister Trevor Mallard just before the last election about throwing polluters in jail.

While any policy needs to be carefully considered and robust, there is a fine line between consultation and procrastination.

Dr Smith is right to say that there is no "magic bullet" to improving water quality. A magazine full of measures is needed, some of which will be politically unpalatable. However, it is his job to impose those measures, even if the polluters protest. The issue is simply too big to leave to regional councils, and too important for a voluntary regime.

Federated Farmers dairy chairman Lachlan McKenzie says rules stifle the kind of innovation that helps farmers to work more sustainably. He argues against a prescriptive policy, saying: "We don't need that one. That one has rules in it."

That is precisely why it is needed. The most recent report on the Clean Streams Accord – which was supposed to see dairy farmers working towards clean, healthy water through an audited, self-regulated approach – shows it is not working. The proportion of farms properly treating or discharging dairy effluent has dropped from 64 per cent to 60 per cent.

There are no doubt farmers implementing new ideas and providing innovative solutions to the problem, as Mr McKenzie claims. However, it is equally clear that there are others who regard environmental standards as an inconvenience in the pursuit of higher production and higher profits.

Dairying is vital to the nation's economy, but that does not mean that dairy farmers should be allowed to use rivers as open drains.

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New Zealand's rivers can be restored. It will be expensive – the cleanup of the Waiwhetu Stream has just been completed at a cost of $21 million – but it is not only worthwhile, it is a necessity.

- The Dominion Post

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