'The fight will continue': Water quality to remain an issue under new National Government

The Selwyn River at the Coes Ford bridge location near Leeston full of river weed and at a low water flow.
JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF

The Selwyn River at the Coes Ford bridge location near Leeston full of river weed and at a low water flow.

By the lower stretch of Selwyn River, temporary pollution warning signs have become permanent.

Water became one of the most divisive issues in the 2017 general election campaign, erupting into an unpleasant spat between urban and rural interests.

It was in part due to rivers like Canterbury's Selwyn. Images over the summer showed Coes Ford, a swimming hole on the river, without water, thick mats of algae on the dry riverbed. It became symbolic of what critics said was environmental neglect by the National Government, now with likely to have another three years at the helm. 

Marnie Prickett (left) and Tom Kay, water quality campaigners.
WARWICK SMITH/STUFF

Marnie Prickett (left) and Tom Kay, water quality campaigners.

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A week before the election, Prime Minister Bill English went to Ashburton on a quest for the rural vote, telling a room of farmers his opponents "take no notice of you". They agreed.

A few days later, farmers gathered in Morrinsville, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern's hometown, to denounce what they said was the party's use of farmers as a "political football". 

Rural and urban tensions had been thoroughly stoked.

Far from the campaign trail, Mike Glover – who lives in Springston, south of Christchurch, and is neither townie or farmer – has started a community water group to discuss Selwyn's state.

His daughter has never swum in the river they live beside; its pollution has become a social issue as much an environmental one.

"Both parties were starting to talk a bit more seriously about water," Glover said.

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"But they had a lot of rhetoric and big, wide statements about townies and farmers. If you dig into a bit more there's so much more going on."

Most of the debate was around Labour's water tax, which would have imposed a targeted cost on irrigating farmers for a river clean-up fund.

Whether this was a mistake – connecting irrigation specifically to water quality – would surely be a point of reflection. 

English was happy to channel the vitriol towards his opponent: in a TV appearance, he painted a dark vision of Labour slaughtering cows and de-populating cities to improve water quality. 

During the campaign, Ardern had planned an event at Coes Ford to talk about water quality. It was cancelled because the river was in flood.

English brought it up a few days later, in a way that seemed to suggest victory on the water issue: the so-called face of river pollution, inconveniently healthy. 

But the Selwyn is not healthy, in flood or not. Like many of Canterbury's lowland rivers, its nitrate levels are rising, primarily due to intensive agriculture further up the catchment.

The most recent data from Land Air Water Aotearoa, which is two years old, showed its nitrate concentrations were 6 milligrams per cubic metre, occasionally spiking above 7mg/cum. Under guidelines pre-dating the National Government's water standards, the advisable limit was around 0.6mg/cum – the point where algae grows excessively, draining oxygen from the water fish need to live.

This issue was the one Glover was most worried about – and the sort of thing neither major party took much notice of.

"They didn't really say much about that and it's one of my biggest concerns," he said.

"Swimmable rivers is not telling the full story." 

With a National Government convening for a fourth time, the tensions unearthed in the campaign – a clear public appetite for better water quality and a sense among rural communities that there is a target on their back – will be a tricky balancing act.

To what extent it would be willing to budge from its chosen path remained a concern among water quality campaigners. 

"We've still got this economic model from this government which they seem to be wanting to throw us headlong into, which is the intensification of agriculture," said Marnie Prickett of Choose Clean Water.

"That's a real worry, that he (English) thinks regulation doesn't have a place in water quality and the improvement of our rivers. That's a major worry of mine."

A change of government would have made a difference, she said, but would not have solved the problem. 

The fight for water quality was activated before the election and would not end in the aftermath.

"They've already had years of the public fighting them on this and I think the fight's going to continue and it's going to get louder.

"They're going to hear long and loud about water. It's just too important."

 - Sunday Star Times

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