Swimmability targets under fire for ignoring smaller rivers where families swim
Government plans to make the majority of New Zealand rivers and lakes swimmable by 2040 exclude many smaller waterways where families like to take their children, according to new figures from Forest & Bird.
The group says Environment Minister Nick Smith's proposals apply to only about 10 per cent of the country's waterways, leaving many smaller rivers and streams without any swimmability requirements.
Map Auckland rivers supplied by Forest & Bird
Smith rejects this, saying the majority of swimming spots are in rivers covered by the National Policy Statement, and that targeting larger rivers will keep monitoring costs down, while having the knock-on effect of forcing councils to maintain standards upstream.
Maps from Forest & Bird reveal the number of smaller waterways exempt from the targets, which chief executive Kevin Hague said amounted to a failure to keep Kiwis safe.
The cover of Smith's discussion document referred to 90 per cent of rivers and lakes being clean by 2040, Hague said. "I think New Zealanders would think of all the rivers they know, and imagine 90 per cent of all waterways will be swimmable.
"The streams that are not covered by the Government's standards are often the places that are popular with local families.
"While they may be too small for adults to swim in, they are frequently the safe, slow rivers and streams that are perfect for children to splash about and play in."
Hague said the policy stated that targets applied only to rivers of "fourth order" and above – fed by three or more tributaries – and lakes with a perimeter larger than 1.5 kilometres.
"There's something like 450,000km of rivers and streams in NZ. The new policy will only apply to around 45,000km of them.
"That means a river has to be quite a substantial waterway before it gets covered at all."
Based on these measures, Hague said exemptions included the whole of the Wellington headland, all Wellington city streams except the lower end of Kaiwharawhara, as well as popular swimming spots such as Wainui stream in Queen Elizabeth Park in Paekakariki, Taupo stream at Plimmerton beach, and Korokoro stream in Lower Hutt.
Map of rivers in the Wellington region supplied by Forest & Bird
Map of Wellington rivers supplied by Forest & Bird
Hague also took aim at the measures of swimmability, saying requirements were too weak, and echoing previous accusations that the Government was "shifting the goalposts" to make targets more easily achievable.
Smith said requirements to improve human health in smaller creeks were in the policy. However, they did not require being monitored, reported on, or tested against the target improvements.
"There is no way you can improve the river water quality in those 45,000km of rivers unless you also, as a council, improve the 400,000km of streams that contribute into them," he said.
Accusations of "shifting the goalposts" where either politically motivated, or based on a lack of understanding of swimmable and wadeable standards.
The proposed system aimed to advise on swimmability based on the variability of E.coli levels. Rivers would be given a colour rating, attached to which were conditions under which it was unsafe to swim, for example after flooding or heavy rainfall.
Map of Taranaki rivers supplied by Forest & Bird
Green Party co-leader James Shaw said a lack of clarity around smaller rivers and lakes meant they would left out. "This is a classic case of you should put a fence at the top of the cliff, not an ambulance at the bottom."
Niwa freshwater chief scientist John Quinn said E.coli was a good litmus test for other common water-borne pathogens.
"There has been some change, you could call it shifting of the goalposts, it's not enormous to me.
"The main thing that has changed for the positive is that we are now going for swimmability, as something required broadly across the country, where previously it was wadeability."
The National Policy Statement is out for public consultation until April 28.