How to save our river?

00:00, Oct 18 2010
NO RETURN? The Manawatu River, seen here from Fitzherbert Bridge looking west, has been called one of the most polluted in the Western world.
NO RETURN? The Manawatu River, seen here from Fitzherbert Bridge looking west, has been called one of the most polluted in the Western world.

Ecologists are warning that pollution in the Manawatu River has almost reached the point of no return and immediate action must be taken to save it.

The river has been called one of the most polluted in the Western world, and after years of discussion about what can be done to fix it, Associate Professor Russell Death and Dr Mike Joy, of Massey University, are fed up with the laid-back approach being taken.

"We have been lulled into a belief that we are clean and green, but with the most polluted river in the country something needs to be done," Dr Joy said. "If you want to clean up a river you have to start at the top. We can save it, it's just getting it to a state where it can sustain fish life again."

Horizons Regional Council chief executive Michael McCartney said that even though council had prevented things getting worse over the years, a long-term solution could not be reached without a high price tag.

"We need people to start thinking about the river as an asset for the city, but [ratepayers] need to be prepared to invest in a difference," he said. "It's not something we should be ashamed of or turn our back on."

Dr Death and Dr Joy have spent the past 20 years researching the ecological conditions of the river and the pair are due to hold a seminar tomorrow night at Te Manawa to discuss who is responsible for "killing" the river and some potential resolutions to reduce pollution.


The seminar starts at 7.30pm and is open to the public.

In August, the region's four mayors, industry groups, iwi and conservationists agreed to sign the Manawatu River Accord in an attempt to clean it up following years of degradation.

When asked who was to blame for the state of the river, Dr Death said responsibility did not lie with just one sector.

"I blame lots of different things," he said. "Everything from individuals who tend not to appreciate what they have until it's gone, politicians and the whole political set. The Resource Management Act does not function the way it should. I think we also have to look at the impact of farming and the small-town sewage-treatment plants."

Dr Joy said the current solution is to use chemicals to get the other chemicals out.

"This is a really bad solution. It's like bringing stoats into the country to get rid of rabbits but then having the stoats to deal with. It's a really dumb and expensive way to fix the problem in the short term."

Dr Death said the way forward was for individuals, companies and councils to stop talking and start doing.

"The river accord is a step in the right direction and there have been some gains, but it's a lot of political talk and not a lot of action," he said. "Unless you own land beside a stream, or a company, or are a councillor then you're limited as to what you can do, but ultimately it's the legal system in New Zealand that dictates the playing field but if people can lobby for that environment to be protected perhaps our message will start getting through."

He said fencing off streams and discharging effluent back into the land would be very effective ways of reducing pollution.

"Effluent can be used on farms as a source of water. It's nutrient-laden water and it's a natural cycle."

Dr Joy said there was an attitude of denial within the community about the state of the river.

"It's frustrating," he said. "We could fill a truckload with papers, research and accords on the river but nothing would change."

Although there would be a huge cost to change the way effluent and farming runoff are discharged into the river, the cost of doing nothing was far greater, Dr Joy said.

"Somehow it's portrayed as this really negative thing, that by doing anything to your farm is some negative greenie imposition on your land rights.

"This region has got a pretty bad reputation and you add the most polluted river in New Zealand, it just reduces land value and people don't want to come here. We can't give up."

Mr McCartney said Horizons welcomes public debate over the issue, as long as it was informative and balanced.

"We can't lay the blame on one particular sector," he said. "It's a community-based problem and the key players will have to compromise in order to find a resolution that is affordable and realistic."

Workshops with the parties involved in the river accord had begun and action plans would be in place by March.

"We can return it to a better state but we need a clear target where success can be targeted and measured. It's a long-term game. We now just have to get the varying sectors compromising."

Manawatu-Whanganui Federated Farmers president Gordon McKellar said most shed effluent was recycled before being discharged to land, so the bigger issue came from cows in the catchment areas. But removing cows from those areas would cause "huge economic losses".

Other means to lower the nutrient levels in runoff, including planting or fencing along streams, are being investigated by Federated Farmers, Horizons, Dairy NZ and Fonterra, he said.

Manawatu Standard