'Progress' on water quality has been in the wrong direction

A sign at Lake Forsyth warns of toxic algae.

A sign at Lake Forsyth warns of toxic algae.

OPINION: It was hard to miss the incongruity of the title of David Caygill's opinion piece, "We are making progress on water quality" last week, next to a photo of Lake Forsyth's shores smothered in algae so toxic a teaspoon would kill a child.

In one sense, Caygill, Deputy Chairperson of Environment Canterbury (ECan), is right. We are making progress. Sadly, we are progressing toward a situation where blooms such the one that has so far killed 30 sheep and slowly choked fish and eels to death at Lake Forsyth become more frequent.

We are making progress toward a country where our kids can only be told about when their parents used to swim in the local rivers as they drive across the plains on a hot summer day; not thinking of stopping for a dip, knowing the "Health Risk" signs have been in place for so long that lichen partially obscures the words. 

It's important to note that Caygill did not say, "We have improved water quality". He wouldn't be so bold. It would deny the lived experience of Cantabrians and expose too starkly the failure of Ecan and central government to protect what is of vital importance to us all, clean safe water.  

*Making progress on water quality
*How to break Canterbury's water stalemate
*Canterbury's poisonous Lake Forsyth kills sheep
*ECan has 'significant concerns' with Government proposals

Instead, Caygill hides behind years of backwards processes. He goes to great pains to outline the hearings, the committees, the appeals, the panels that have led to … his personal feelings of confidence that water quality will improve.  An incredible amount of public resource and time has been spent making sure David Caygill doesn't share the despair of the rest of us.

Ironically, it was the disregard, disrespect and disestablishment of public process that was the very thing that got him his job.

Meanwhile, research published last month by scientists from University of Waikato, University of Canterbury and the Cawthron Institute showed "an increase in the distribution and extent of Phormidium-dominated proliferations in New Zealand's rivers over the last decade". Phormidium is the toxic algae. Their research includes work on the Selwyn and Opihi Rivers and concludes that this increase is toxic algae likely driven by changes in the last decade to "flow regimes (due to water abstraction or climate change), run-off of nutrients, sediment and other contaminants, and habitat modification."

Dr. Alison Dewes, veterinarian and agroecologist, who has been called as an expert witness in four Canterbury regional and sub-regional plan changes, is astounded by Caygill's confidence. She notes that the Canterbury Water Management Strategy has set its bottom line for nitrates at a standard that is nine times higher than the standard at which problem algal blooms can be triggered. Algal blooms similar to what we are witnessing at Lake Forsyth. Yes, David, this has been our progress on water quality.

Caygill's misguided confidence, like John Key's incredible recent statement on TV One that New Zealand rivers are in "good shape", holds this country back. What's clear is we are using 19th and  20th Century thinking to solve 21st Century problems.

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Caygill believes large scale irrigation will make us more resilient to climate change. The reality is the opposite: it will lock us in to an input-heavy model that isn't nimble enough to cope with the increasingly unpredictable weather patterns my generation will see and have to deal with for the rest of our lives; in the same way that poor stormwater and wastewater treatment systems built last century have made it extremely challenging for us to protect and improve urban streams and rivers.

We now have what has been described as a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity for freshwater. Let us not, as ECan is suggesting, bend or scrap freshwater legislation so that we may continue to build progress on pollution.

Let's establish healthy people, rivers, lakes and groundwater as our priority in law. From this foundation, we can encourage the creativity and innovation that New Zealanders are known for to develop smart, world-leading systems, both urban and rural, that support life instead of endanger it.  We have the knowledge in New Zealand to be a shining light for generations facing environmental challenges on a scale we have not witnessed before.

Marnie Prickett is an Agricultural Sciences student at Massey University and the spokesperson for Choose Clean Water NZ.

 - Stuff


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