New water standards set too low, say critics

OLIVIA WANNAN
Last updated 06:30 04/07/2014

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Boaties and wading fishermen - though perhaps not swimmers - will be cheered by the Government's announcement that lakes and rivers will have to meet minimum water quality standards.

The standards, announced yesterday by Environment Minister Amy Adams and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy, aim to keep waterways clean enough to protect their ecosystems and suitable for human recreation, with regional plans in place by 2025.

However, the minimums the Government has chosen will keep water healthy enough for "secondary contact" - that is for boating or wading in - but not primary contact, such as swimming.

Critics argue that the Government has ignored the overwhelming public support for standards tight enough to keep rivers and lakes healthy enough to swim in.

For waterways in Wellington and Wairarapa, the announcement means councils will have to include proposals to meet the requirements in any future freshwater management plans.

These plans must ensure certain baselines are not exceeded for toxins such as nitrate and environmental indicators such as E coli bacteria, dissolved oxygen, and periphyton blooms, Adams said. "Where the water quality is already above the national standard, it cannot be allowed to deteriorate."

While the Government will contribute $3 million annually for four years to help councils comply, it will be up to local authorities to regulate and police the standards.

Wellington City Council environment portfolio leader Iona Pannett said, with that figure spread nationally, the sum was paltry. She agreed that minimum water quality standards were long called for and aspirational, but warned getting waterways such as Wellington's degraded Karori Stream up to standard could come with a million-dollar price tag. "We have to balance the books somehow."

Massey University freshwater scientist Mike Joy said few lakes and almost no rivers were below the standards - and that was by design. "[The Government] made the rules to suit the rivers we've already got . . . It's twisting the science to suit the plan, which is to have more [agricultural] intensification."

Several key water health indicators - notably measures of invertebrates - were left out. On top, some baselines were set at the level that killed life in the waterways, he said. Some standards were even below what was found in China's notoriously polluted Yangtze River.

But Federated Farmers environment spokesman Ian Mackenzie said making the regime - which was already tough on farmers - any stronger would have "destroyed New Zealand's economy".

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"The Government has walked the very tough tightrope between economic and social benefit and environmental gain. And I think they've got that pretty right."

In the framework, councils could be exempted from the minimum standards for waterways where "significant" infrastructure, such as hydroelectric power stations, or natural causes, such as native bird colonies, put water below the bottom lines.

Councils could also apply to be exempted if developing plans would place an "unmanageable burden" on them.

Green Party water spokeswoman Eugenie Sage said the Government ignored the 90 per cent of public submissions on the standards asking for lakes and rivers to be kept clean enough to swim in.

"We desperately need effective regulation that prevents further degradation and improves the quality of our rivers and lakes."

- The Dominion Post

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