Woe betide those who question our water quality

Riding Shotgun

RACHEL STEWART
Last updated 07:52 10/12/2012

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Riding Shotgun

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OPINION: Well, if The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can do a trilogy, then so can I.

I believe the real state of freshwater in Taranaki warrants a three-part column - such is its importance to everything we do as a province, and will do, in the future.

It's timely, given the furore over our 100% Pure tourism branding and the subsequent attacks on freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy for calling it a lie.

He has been saying it for years, so it was actually nothing new. The difference this time was that his comments appeared in the New York Times.

Sean Plunkett, on his NewstalkZB show, lost no time in branding him a "traitor".

Joy also received an unsolicited email, sent at 12.15am, from lobbyist Mark Unsworth, which was priceless for perfectly illustrating just how many out there truly believe that pointing out such inconvenient environmental truths makes you a legitimate target for abuse.

Cameron Slater, on his Whale Oil blog said, "Joy should be taken out and shot at dawn for economic sabotage".

Nice.

Closer to home, LIVE magazine's October edition ran a well- researched article on the subject of freshwater and how well the Taranaki Regional Council was doing on that score.

Let's just say it wasn't all beer and skittles.

Council chief executive Basil Chamberlain's testy emails in reply to editor Irena Brooks were published last Friday in the latest LIVE. They make interesting reading, not least because they provide a great insight into the murky and ill-tempered world of public-relation spin.

Chamberlain starts by saying, "Given the amount of time Taranaki Regional Council staff spent trying to help you understand the state and management of freshwater in Taranaki, it was disappointing that your article presented such a distorted picture".

Brooks replies to him by saying: "I'm sure you understand that everything stated in the story 'How Healthy Are Our Rivers?' comes from council officers, council reports, reports from the Land and Water Forum and the Office of the Auditor-General, Environment Waikato, plus a brief comment from Dr Mike Joy, of Massey University. If you have any issues with the factual nature of this information, you need to direct your concerns to the authors of those reports."

Chamberlain's email only points out the good news and ends with: "I look forward to publication of this letter in full".

Brooks replies that she is happy to run his letter, saying: "I would also be keen to include any comment you care to make on why Taranaki is the only region in the North Island where farmers still discharge effluent to our waterways.

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"Will we see a reduction in the rate of dairy-shed discharges to waterways any time soon?"

But wait. This can't be true, can it? Effluent discharged into waterways? Surely not!

Think again. Taranaki has 1400 cow sheds discharging effluent into streams. By comparison, the Manawatu-Whanganui region has two. This information comes from the council's latest State of the Environment report.

Needless to say, Chamberlain hasn't responded to that question because, frankly, how can he?

Doing so would mean admitting to a rather unpalatable and relatively unknown fact, and we don't want to scare the economic horses, do we?

Just days ago, you may have noticed a glossy pamphlet in your letterbox with the shiny, smiley face of regional council chairman David MacLeod telling us that all is well in Taranaki's water world.

This is the same David MacLeod who is on Fonterra's board of directors and oversaw the council's investment of $4 million in Fonterra corporate bonds.

But doesn't the council regulate the dairy industry? Why yes. It does. Maybe it is considering an investment in TAG oil too.

Sources within the council tell me that this mail drop exercise was a direct response to LIVE's story. How flattering for LIVE and, one wonders, how expensive for us, the ratepayers.

If you still have your copy, I urge you to read it carefully. It's fairly dry stuff in a wet kind of way, but it's also very important.

Sifting through the claims made by the regional council that our water quality is "either stable or improving" needs some deeper scientific analysis and I plan to look at that in my next column.

The Freshwater Sciences Society annual conference was held in Dunedin last week and I have asked some of those attending for their thoughts on the council's glossy offering.

It's only fair that we look harder at their claims and who better than freshwater scientists independent of the council?

I expect that Joy will be one of those and will be more than happy to be quoted.

After you have been called everything under the sun for telling the truth about the state of freshwater in this country, I doubt the regional council's potential wrath bothers him.

I will also ask other freshwater scientists for their review and can only hope they are just as willing as Joy to be quoted.

However, given what their colleague has had to endure, I can't imagine that they will be rushing to see their name in print.

It's a very sad day when New Zealand scientists feel compelled to remain silent, lest they be called traitors by the money worshippers.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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