Down in the lowlands where the rivers run a dirty brown

STEPHEN OLIVER
Last updated 06:44 23/10/2012
LOWLANDS: Kids learn fishing at the Waikato River.
MARK TAYLOR

LOWLANDS: Kids learn fishing at the Waikato River.

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Stephen Oliver

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I've always had a soft spot for the opening credits of The Andy Griffith Show, and that whistling theme tune. There, every week on TV, you would see Andy and his boy strolling off to the nearest water hole, fishing poles slung over the shoulder, and everything right with the world. Hokum, of course.

I guess there was a time in New Zealand when we didn't give our recreational waterways a second thought. Clean, green and godzone.

Once you got beyond city limits there was the imaginary sign in the back of the skull which read, "Gone fishin' " or "Gone to the bach for the weekend." You could swim and fish pretty much where you pleased.

Your next-door neighbour, if he wasn't too difficult or intractable, was just "a joker" or "a silly bugger". Things were simple back then, or so we liked to imagine, and the darker strands of our subconscious were safely nailed down at the edges by the puritan ethic of Calvinism - still alive and well in the New Zealand rural sector.

Those sectors are governed now by the dairy industry. It is sobering to reflect that there are now 6 million cattle in New Zealand. One such beast generates as much waste as 11 people. That is some runoff! Straight into our rivers, lakes and oceans.

A recent report by the Environment Ministry assessed our fresh water beaches, rivers and waterways. Waikato seems to have been forgotten in the survey this time round. No wonder. It is a heavy dairy based economy and that is where the problem lies with polluted waterways from nutrients and runoff, contamination that spreads river slime and the E. coli virus.

That, coupled with ineffective sewage systems, compound the problem. A fair number of these areas in the lowlands are not acceptable for swimming or even fishing. It all comes down to economics and profit margins.

The responsibility to clean up waterways and rivers falls to local authorities and councils.

There is no one national set of standards in place. So what happens is that the dairy industry leaders contest council rulings on the matter and nothing is implemented by way of effective national standards. You would need to plant up every stream and river in the district. Who would pay for that? The Government only makes contributions to big-ticket concerns like Lake Taupo.

The Waikato River in the lowlands is polluted and a health hazard, just as the Manawatu River is in the lower reaches. The local water skiing club of that district knows that if you fall off your skis and get river water into your mouth you are liable to end up with a couple of days vomiting for your trouble. Our New Zealand clean green image is blown clean out of the water. Phosphates. Nitrates. Nutrients. Take your pick.

It has been wryly observed that there are now two New Zealands. The mountainous regions above dairy farming. Crystal clear, pure streams. This is the fabled land of Erewhon as depicted by Samuel Butler. Arguably, the great, unrecognised New Zealand novel. That is the postcard New Zealand sold by the tourist industry. Snow, white as the soul of every god-fearing citizen beneath the branded tail of an Air NZ Boeing 474 gliding serenely by over your big plasma TV screen.

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Mountain tops glistening bright as meringues. Godzone! But who among us has ever visited those transcendent realms? A postcard panorama of such heavenly vistas will have to suffice for most of us. An airbrushed, idyllic dream for you and me, citizen, is as close as most of us will get to the real thing.

The other New Zealand is where we all live - the lowlands. And that is where all the riverways without exception in this country run heavily polluted in varying degrees from bad to worse. Phosphates. Nitrates. Nutrients.

It is like chanting a mantra. Chant it often enough and it might sink in. Chant it at night before you go to sleep.

Counting sheep is passe in the land of the long whitewash these days. Standards continue to slip and we are well behind other countries in doing anything effective to arrest the slide into Third World status as far as our waterways go.

Regarding the Waikato River and the Settlement Act 2010, the Tainui trust, acting with local authorities, is charged with cleaning up the river for the benefit of future generations.

One hopes that the inevitable red tape doesn't become too entangled in the Huntly Power Station turbines; that the trust proves itself an exemplary model for other waterway management authorities throughout the nation. One hopes.

Stephen Oliver has published several volumes of poetry including Harmonic and more recently Apocrypha. He lives in the north King Country.

- Waikato Times

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