Water rule changes seen as 'licence to pollute'

22:43, Jul 03 2014
Environmental expert Dr Mike Joy.
WATER WOES Environmental expert Dr Mike Joy claims new clean up rules are an excuse for the government to dramatically increase the agriculture industry over the next couple of decades at the expense of water quality.

The Government's latest attempt to clean up New Zealand's rivers and lakes will lead to more pollution, an environmental ecologist says.

New national standards for fresh water were announced yesterday, giving councils until 2025 to ensure rivers and lakes are safe wading and boating.

But Dr Mike Joy, an environmental ecologist at Massey university, says the new standards are a "backwards step for fresh water".

"You could just drive a truck through it," he told TVNZ's Breakfast programme.

"There's so many gaps, so many things we've been measuring up until now that they've dropped."

The changes put limits on the amount of toxins and bacteria that can be present in water, which the Government says will require some communities and farms to improve their waste-disposal systems.

But the weakening of other limits were essentially a "licence to pollute," Joy said, and would allow for a big increase in the amount of pollution in rivers.

"We've got a decline going on," he said.

"Rivers are getting worse, lakes are getting worse. This should be something that puts the brakes on, but instead it's an opening-up. It's like lifting the speed limit from 50kmh to 500kmh - that's the kind of level of change around nitrate pollution."

Joy said more than 90 per cent of rivers in lowland areas - those coming from urban areas and farms - were already too dangerous to swim in.

The new rules are an excuse for the Government to dramatically increase the agriculture industry over the next couple of decades at the expense of water quality, he said.

"The Government wants to double agriculture in the next decade or two," he said.

"The only way they can do that, given that our rivers are already close to or past the limits, is to open it up and weaken the rules. That gives them space to do that.

"We're producing more stuff, but we're using more to produce more so we're actually in decline. Productivity is declining from our agricultural sector and especially from dairy, so we've got to question our blind belief that it's our economic saviour, because we're just not looking at the costs of it."

In announcing the changes yesterday, Environment Minister Amy Adams and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said they were a critical milestone in the Government's drive to improve water quality.

Guy said the changes balanced economic growth with environmental sustainability.

''It's not an either-or situation – we need both. Primary industries contribute more than 76 per cent of our merchandise exports and largely depend on freshwater, while tourism also relies on the beauty of New Zealand's water bodies.

''We all want sustainable and profitable primary industries. That will mean changes to some of our farming practices, but I know farmers are up for the challenge.''

The government will contribute $3 million a year to help councils comply but it will be up to local authorities to regulate and police the standards.