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There’s something in the water...and it isn’t us

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Haast River - near Fantail Falls (photo: Marie Brown)

The freshwater and marine environments of New Zealand are in a state that is unjustifiably poor considering our population density. Our rivers, lakes, wetlands, harbours, estuaries and the ultimate receiving environment of the oceans are in a bad way, with many unfit to swim in...not to mention what pollution means to the other inhabitants of water! Water is life, and so the urgency of this matter transcends political boundaries like no other. Water reflects the quality of land management around it and upstream, and at present right across our lowlands it is not a pretty picture.

Currently heavy metal, fertiliser, sediment and effluent discharges are choking our waterways to the point that many can't sustain basic ecosystem function, much less abundant aquatic life. And as good as we are chucking bad stuff in, we are even better at taking water out of the rivers. A significant number of our rivers are over-allocated, which means that there are existing permits to take out more water than there actually is available. The next generation and all those after will see and know and drink what we leave behind, so let's fix this. What would it take?

The spotlight is on rivers from the Green Party this election. Focussed attention and goal-orientated steps towards restoring the awa of this country is overdue and urgently needed. This focus for the party builds on existing work of the past few years that has been moving towards a better future for our water. Recent work has included the Land and Water Forum, the new National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, a draft lying around somewhere of the National Environmental Standard on Ecological Flows or some such and oh...a few other things. But this plan really represents a decisive way forward, the rhetoric of other players hasn't saved a river yet that I am aware of.

Setting standards for clean water requires a regulatory approach which is an important complement to grass-roots action on water protection and recovery. Introduction of a charge for irrigation would incentivise efficient use of water by using economic mechanisms. And finally, cleaning up the river would help the systems recover from decades of profound misuse. So is this a high level airy-fairy goal unlikely to be reached? I suppose so...if we do nothing to achieve it! But the truth is that rivers are a doddle to clean up (although still water like lakes and wetlands are more of a challenge).

We need to urgently stop dumping so much junk, sediment and poison in our rivers, and they'll clean up faster than anyone will expect...the benefit of flowing water! Limiting the negative inputs and reducing water take will enable the ecosystem to recover and the plants and animals that call the rivers home might just have half a chance. So in decades to come, when we aren't 'young' greens any more, the sad days when we could swim in so few of our rivers will be nothing but a memory. And we can reminisce three feet deep in the Manawatu....happy in the knowledge that we are still green...but our rivers aren't. A goal worth fighting for? Yeah I think so.

Marie Brown is a PhD student at the University of Waikato conducting research into Resource Management in New Zealand.

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