Time to act on water quality

Problems with water availability and quantity are of increasing concern in New Zealand.

Today’s NZ Herald editorial: Urgent need to act on our water supply

Trucks are delivering water to parched vineyards in Marlborough. As river levels dip in the hottest months, water quality falls. Warning signs beside freshwater lagoons at Piha, Karekare and Bethells because of overloaded septic tanks are a familiar summer sight.

Toxic algae has been detected at 15 freshwater sites in Canterbury. North of Christchurch, people who draw water from rural supplies with shallow intakes must permanently boil water used for drinking, oral hygiene and food preparation.

The signs are not positive.

Six years ago, the Government asked the Land and Water Forum to create a plan for freshwater management. The forum, which draws together 67 organisations and is meant to work collaboratively, has made dozens of recommendations in a series of reports on how best to manage water.

In its fourth and latest document, issued in November, the forum pleaded for action, warning that without some concrete steps water quality would continue to deteriorate, and the country would further squander what the forum rightly calls a national treasure and strategic asset.

Forum chairman Alastair Bisley delivered a blunt message to Environment Minister Nick Smith and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy, reminding them that most of the previous 153 recommendations continued to gather dust.

Mr Bisley pointedly noted that the forum’s very first recommendation in its new report was to implement all the others “and do that as soon as possible”.

All New Zealanders expect reliable access to clean water. The economy rests on its assured supply. As many as 200,000 jobs – in dairying, horticulture and tourism – directly depend on water.

The Government has been handed all it needs to make their livelihoods secure and protect a renewable asset. It ought to act soon.

From the Land and Water Forum:

In February 2015 Ministers for the Environment and Primary Industries asked the Forum to assist the Government with further development and delivery of water policy reform.

On 27 November 2015 the Forum released the Fourth Report of the Land and Water Forum (pdf, 2.5MB) on how to maximise the economic benefits of freshwater while managing within water quality and quantity limits that are set consistent with the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management 2014 (NPS-FM). It also recommends exclusion of livestock from waterways on plains and lowland hills, addresses a number of urban issues and suggests tools and approaches to assist the Crown’s exploration of rights and interests with iwi.

From the Fourth report:

Fresh water is however a resource that has come under increasing pressure over the last 20 years. In our first report, we noted that although it is still good overall and rates well internationally, both its quality and its availability have been declining, especially in lowland areas, as land use has intensified and our population has grown.

We have made significant progress in dealing with point source discharges, but diffuse discharges remain an issue, and some urban and pastoral waterways remain highly polluted.

Many catchments are overallocated with contaminants.

Lags mean that impacts of present and past practices may not reveal themselves for some time, while. Climate change will increase our difficulties.

Poorer water quality adversely affects biodiversity, aquatic ecosystems, invasive species and in-stream uses,. impacting our health and our amenities.

The report makes a number of recommendations, starting with:

Recommendation 1: The government should complete implementing the Forum’s recommendations from its three previous reports as soon as possible. Unless otherwise explicitly stated in this report, those earlier recommendations remain unchanged.

Increasing land production and population will keep putting more pressure on water resources. This may be accentuated by affects of climate change.

Water availability and quality are fundamental requirements. Government should be doing whatever it can to provide these.