Plea to save top New Zealand rivers

DAVID WILLIAMS
Last updated 05:00 06/12/2011
Waimakariri River
DON SCOTT/ Fairfax Media

FADING SUNSET: Sunset over the Waimakariri River, near Kaiapoi, may hide the real danger New Zealand's waterways face from intensive farming.

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New Zealand's inadequately protected rivers are being pushed towards crisis point by economic development, a report to Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson says.

The New Zealand Conservation Authority report, to be made public today, calls for a greater government commitment to rivers, including a specific agency to protect them and national standards for ecological flows and water levels.

Not having a single agency focused on river preservation was a "significant gap", and agencies with different obligations, such as regional councils and the Department of Conservation (DOC) were failing to protect rivers long-term, the report said.

Decision-makers had put a greater emphasis on the use and development of rivers, especially irrigation for intensive farming, and "limited attention" to protection, the authority said.

"A greater commitment by Government, government agencies and local government is needed to safeguard remaining outstanding rivers," the report said.

"This is required because of mounting scientific evidence about the decline of indigenous freshwater biodiversity and the deteriorating health of rivers and streams, the loss of wild rivers and their recreational opportunities to hydro-electricity generation and irrigation, and anecdotal evidence that people can no longer fish or swim in streams they enjoyed as children."

The report suggested a representative set of rivers be "comprehensively protected", possibly through water-conservation orders and giving regional councils powers to introduce moratoriums on over-allocated catchments.

New Zealand's water quality was good by international standards but was declining in the face of rising water allocation and the increasing number of dairy cattle.

The South Island had 2.1 million dairy cows in 2009, about seven times as many as 20 years ago. Several large-scale dams, eligible for millions of dollars in government grants, are planned for Canterbury, worrying environmental groups which say the region's waterways are already severely degraded.

Authority chairwoman Kay Booth said that without urgent intervention, the country's valuable rivers would "disappear" in the long term.

The authority called for greater safeguards for rivers running through public conservation land.

Booth said the public should have input into which rivers were protected.

Wilkinson, who has had the report for two weeks, said yesterday that tackling water quality and better protecting waterways were "big challenges".

DOC, which is facing budget and job cuts, has a statutory duty to advocate for the protection of freshwater ecosystems. However, the report said it had been stretched by consent applications to the point where advocacy was, in some cases, being led by Fish & Game and Forest & Bird.

New Zealand Fish & Game chief executive Bryce Johnson was pleased the authority had waded into the matter.

"There's a huge debate going on in New Zealand at the moment about water."

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