A fresh look at fresh water needed

Is a "wadeable" Maitai River satisfactory?
SALLY KIDSON/FAIRFAX MEDIA

Is a "wadeable" Maitai River satisfactory?

OPINION: 

When I was growing up at Waikawa Bay, near French Pass, our water supply was piped from a spring in a bush-clad gully about two kilometres up a steep hillside. The water inlet was a number eight wire arrangement covered with a couple of layers of netting to stop fish and debris entering the pipe. Lying quietly in a small pool, it hardly ever caused trouble except during heavy rain when it sometimes became dislodged or clogged with sediment.

We loved playing in the creek. Its bed was shingly and rocky, the water hardly reaching higher than our shins. When it reached flat land near the farm house, it entered a deeper course, bulldozed after a flash flood in the early 1950's piled boulders up to the windowsills. A swampy mix of arum lilies, kikuya grass and driftwood ushered the creek onto the beach where we spent many happy days paddling, building dams and playing with driftwood boats.

Our childhood ambition was to build a fresh water swimming pool on the beach and we spent hours with shovels digging deep circular holes near the creek and channels to divert fresh water into our pool. We never managed more than a trickle of moisture and an unsatisfactory puddle of slushy sand in the base of our excavation but somehow we were never discouraged.

And for a time, a family of little blue penguins squawked and rustled up the creek bed every night to their nest deep under our farm house.

A favourite expedition for us children was to follow the water pipe up to its source, our challenge to climb the whole way without leaving the creek bed. This involved crawling through undergrowth and climbing up steep rocky sections, scraping and scratching our knees and elbows.

We never questioned The Waikawa Bay creek's accessibility, let alone its toxicity. We waded barefoot through it, drank from it when we were thirsty, and washed the mud and dust off our arms and legs in it before going home for tea.  

Like a lot of us, I'm guilty of taking our country's heritage of clean, high quality fresh water for granted. But the situation now is far from good. Take rivers for example. In 2014, the Ministry of the Environment found that only 32 per cent of monitored swimming holes in our rivers were graded good quality for recreation and that 45 per cent were poor or very poor quality.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's Update report on Water quality in New Zealand: Land use and nutrient pollution (June 2015) clearly links "largescale land use change to dairy farming" with "increases in the nitrogen 'stress' on waterways." Southland and Canterbury are most affected in the South Island. Over the summer there was a fuss about high country cattle wandering into waterways, but that's the least of our problems. The biggest cause of damage to NZ's fresh water resources is that increasing numbers of cows on increasingly richly pastured dairy farms "gush litres of urine … (onto the land), overwhelming the ability of the grass to absorb it. Because the nitrogen exists in highly soluble chemical forms, some of the surplus is washed off by rain, but most leaches through soil into groundwater."

There are, of course, other ways in which our fresh water resources can and are being degraded, but the nitrogen associated with dairying is identified by every government science website I read as causing the most damage. The dairying industry needs to step up much more energetically. Damage mitigation has to be built into the dairy industry's cost structure because New Zealanders will not, I believe, accept the destruction of our natural water resources as a fair exchange for dairy industry profits.

Currently, a consultation roadshow on the Next Steps for Fresh Water is going around the country. This roadshow follows the release of the fourth report of the Land and Water Forum, a group of industry, iwi and interest groups who have been working to produce a common policy approach to NZ's fresh water quality. Worryingly, Forest and Bird have serious reservations about the forum's recommendations, citing its tendency to favour economic growth at the expense of the environment, and Fish and Game's Bryce Johnston believes "the document (is) an attack on the environment and the value of natural freshwater".

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One policy proposal is that the minimum standard local bodies set for their fresh water resources is what the proposed policy calls "wadeable", water users have "secondary" contact with. To safeguard your health, you would not be advised to swim in it, let alone drink it. The fourth forum report calls "wadeable" a "robust" standard for fresh water. There's an online guide to the whole policy that is worth reading if you care about this issue. But it seems to me that all the science and all the politics come down to one issue: is a "wadeable" Maitai River, Appleby or Wairoa River good enough? I certainly don't believe so. You can have your say on the future of New Zealand's fresh water resources at www.mfe.govt.nz/consultation/next-steps-fresh-water Submissions close 5pm, 22nd April.

 - Stuff

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