We need to look after our rivers

16:00, Feb 22 2014
Ali, Ami and Tom Kennedy
TAKING CARE: Nelson family Ali, Ami and Tom Kennedy have a swimming hole at the bottom of their garden. It's fuelled their work on setting up a group to improve and maintain the river's health.

A river has always run through my life. For the first 17 years, it was not a particularly pretty river, admittedly, at least where it passed the bottom of my street. Growing up in Whanganui, we largely swam at Kai Iwi beach as the city's namesake river was brown with sewerage and silt.

Even so, I've been swimming in rivers ever since I could walk. On holidays to my nana's near Marton, we spent entire days at swimming holes along the Rangtikei River and the nearby Porewa Stream. Later, as a young man, I sought out river swimming spots close to every town I ever lived in.

And for the past two decades, my river has been the Maitai in Nelson. Black Hole, Dennes Hole, Sharland's Creek, Sunday Hole, Smith's Ford, Waahi Taakaro - the swimming spots along its banks have a rich poetry to them, each name evoking vivid memories minted in the waters there.

Cawthron Institute senior fresh water scientist Dr David Kelly
TESTING: Cawthron Institute senior fresh water scientist Dr David Kelly collects water samples from the Maitai reservoir.

Closer to town, there's a long, straight pool known as "Girlies Hole" because Nelson College for Girls once used it for their school swimming sports. These days it remains full of teenagers, lining up to throw themselves off a rope swing tied to an overhanging poplar.

I love these places. Diving off the rocks into cold, clear water. Splashing about alongside ducks, trout, crawlies, the occasional eel. Flopping on the grassy bank to picnic on plums, peaches, homemade bacon and egg pie. From late spring until early autumn, on mornings, evenings and weekends, heading "up the river" to chuck yourself and your nippers into the Maitai is almost a daily operation.

But not this year. In late November, the Nelson City Council warned against swimming along the Maitai due to a build-up of blue-green algae so toxic, it might kill a dog if it drank the water. It took nearly a month before it was declared safe to swim again.


And this is not a problem particular to Nelson. A tragic 61 per cent of the monitored swimming holes along our rivers are at least intermittently unsafe for swimming. Causes are complex, but among them are excess effluent and fertiliser runoff from agriculture and forestry, and excess sediment because of depleted flow rates caused by too much water being diverted for human use.

Consequently, when the Nats recently tried to sell their shonky new Freshwater Reform package, I took it personally. After a laughably underpromoted consultation period spanning the Christmas break, the deadline for public input closed earlier this month. I took the time to make a submission, and I'll tell you why.

Amazingly, given the appalling state of many waterways, most of the proposed new water quality standards are voluntary. There are no mandatory upper limits specified for nitrate and phosphate pollutants. Too much power is given to local authorities with widely varying agendas. And the proposal gives regional councils until 2030 to thrash out localised policies; that's a whopping 16 years, when many rivers are already in crisis.

Predictably, assorted apologists and lobby groups have trumpeted a major environmental breakthrough, but this is disingenuous at best. In truth, the Government proposes that many rivers need only be clean enough to boat across or wade in, which they euphemistically call "secondary contact".

This is not good enough. Those of us who consider it our birthright to swim and fish in our rivers are not interested in legislation that dithers for 16 years to achieve water we might possibly be able to wade through without getting a nasty rash on our legs. We're also less than thrilled by the prospect of waterways so polluted that the only way to interact with them is by floating atop the murk in a boat.

Any new legislation needs to be a great deal tighter, and quickly. The principle of ever-expanding dairying for private financial gain should no longer be tolerated by affected communities, given how much it degrades the environment we collectively enjoy. Why wait another 16 years to enact pathetically weak new guidelines that may or may not prompt a resistant rump of polluting farmers, foresters and industrialists to voluntarily mitigate their environmental impact?

The time has come for hefty fines that force compliance. Resourceful businesses will still find a way to make money, and agriculture will rapidly evolve and innovate to thrive within new laws that treat our waterways as far more than just conveniently appointed bovine sewers. And if some arable land near certain rivers becomes uneconomic for dairying, so be it.

A more socially and environmentally responsible approach to agriculture won't plunge our nation back into the economic dark ages. It will, however, allow more happy citizens to plunge themselves into clean swimming holes along our rivers.

Sunday Star Times