Govt introduces water quality standards

OLIVIA WANNAN AND BRIDGET RAILTON
Last updated 11:32 04/07/2014

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All of New Zealand's lakes and rivers will in future have to meet minimum water quality standards.

The government has set the deadline for for councils to lay out plans for waterways to meet these standards as of 2025, it was announced yesterday.

It will be the first time the country's waterways would have a minimum quality limits.

Environment Southland strategy and corporate planning manager Ken Swinney, who had been part of a reference group advising on the policy, said the announcement held no great surprises for the council.

Environment Southland had already been working towards the standards and this was adding further clarification, Swinney said.

Environment Minister Amy Adams and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said the changes were a critical milestone in the Government's drive to improve water quality.

Guy said the changes balanced economic growth with environmental sustainability.

''It's not an either-or situation - we need both. Primary industries contribute more than 76 per cent of our merchandise exports and largely depend on freshwater, while tourism also relies on the beauty of New Zealand's water bodies," he said.

''We all want sustainable and profitable primary industries. That will mean changes to some of our farming practices, but I know farmers are up for the challenge.''

However, critics, including the Green Party, say the standards are not robust enough.

Environment Minister Amy Adams said the criteria, including limits on E. coli bacteria numbers and periphyton colonies, would ensure lakes and rivers are suitable for human recreation and maintaining the health of the ecosystem.

She and Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy announced the finalised standards at Lower Hutt's Waiwhetu stream this morning.

While the government will contribute $3 million a year to help councils comply, it will be up to local authorities to regulate and police the standards.

From next month, council freshwater plans must prepare for the government-set water quality measures they must meet by 2025.

"Where the water quality is already above the national standard it cannot be allowed to deteriorate. However, where the water quality falls below the national standards, these new rules mean that councils and communities have to ensure the standard is met," Adams said.

Exceptions to the minimum standards include waterways where "significant" infrastructure such as hydroelectric power stations or natural causes, such as native bird colonies, put water below the bottom lines.

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Councils can also apply to be exempted from the deadline of 2025 if adhering to the standards would place an "unmanageable burden" on them. Adams admitted millions of dollars of infrastructure and investment could be required to put councils up to standard, particularly if local authorities chose to meet higher water quality levels than the mandated minimums.

As well as a minimum standard - the C grading band - the framework also set out higher water quality standards for councils to achieve if desired, an A and B grading band.

Guy said the new rules would also require significant change from the agriculture industry, although he stressed water quality degradation was an urban issue as well as a rural one.

"It will mean changes to farming practices, but most farmers are environmentalists."

But Green Party water spokeswoman Eugenie Sage said the standards had significant gaps and amounted to a "licence to pollute".

The framework ensured waterways were clean enough for recreational wading and boating, but did not require water to be clean enough for people to swim in, she said.

"This means that while some rivers in a region are improving, councils can let others degrade to a condition that is too polluted for swimming."

The proposed standards were based on discussions with 60 freshwater scientists, and were released for consultation in November last year.

Discussions with concerned bodies saw a number of changes, including the deadline for plan implementation pushed forward from 2030 to 2025. 

- The Southland Times

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