Clean Rivers a Green Priority

The Southland Times have devoted the past week to a series of articles related to our polluted waterways and they have made it the number one election priority for Southland. Editor, Fred Tullet, has become a strong advocate for our environment and sustainable living (he led a home gardening series last year) and he is especially keen to clean up our rivers. He has asked all candidates to explain our solutions to solve our water crisis in less than 1000 words and this is my response. 


The Green Party is the only party that has made the state of our rivers an election priority. Rivers exist for all of us; for recreation; as a source of food and drinking water and for industry. Rivers are essential for a healthy economy and our clean green brand underpins our tourism industry and agricultural exports.

New Zealanders take pride in leading the world in many areas and even second place in the Rugby World Cup would be unacceptable. The view that our rivers are all right as long as they’re not the worst in the world is also unacceptable. We have well and truly dropped the ball as regards the quality of our water and when 80% of our lowland rivers are degraded, urgent action is needed.

Urgency is especially required to save the Waituna Lagoon and although some real efforts have been made by local farmers to change their practice we are close to losing our most important and internationally recognized wetland. We need to have the same funding focus and central government attention that Lake Ellesmere has received. If $11.6 million can be found to clean up an already collapsed environment surely we can do the same for an environment that is close to collapsing. It is far easier to stop a lake from flipping than shift it back afterwards.

We have lost too many environments and lives in this country through a weakening of regulations and cutting of investment in regional and national infrastructures that were designed to protect us. Shifting responsibility to the market or industries to set and monitor standards has failed dismally. This approach has contributed to the $11 billion leaky building debacle, the Pike River disaster and the declining standards of coastal shipping leading to the Rena wreck.

We do not have robust standards for clean water, the government’s water management strategy has shifted responsibility to under-resourced regional councils and provided limited ability to deal retrospectively with existing consents that don’t fit with current expectations. Giving regional councils 30 years to be fully compliant does not provide a sense of urgency.

We often hear that a balance is needed between economic growth and protecting the environment and in times of financial crisis the environment must take second place. This is flawed thinking because a healthy environment is essential to a healthy economy. When any industry can abuse our rivers with impunity, it is ordinary New Zealanders who have to pick up the tab for cleaning up the mess.

If businesses profit from the use of our water resources but have no responsibility for any damage they cause we are effectively subsidising them. $35 million was provided by this government to accelerate irrigation schemes but at the same time only $15 million of extra funding was provided to clean our waterways. There is a concerted effort to increase farm intensification while cleaning our water has a lesser priority. This is not a balanced approach and will only support further decline.

It has been largely accepted that the recent decline of river quality is due to intensive farming and more especially the rapid growth of the dairy industry. It is easy to set higher water standards and punish farmers for noncompliance but we must also recognise the importance of farming to our economy and provide the right support for ensuring good farming practice becomes common farming practice. The Green Party has long promoted good practice and even has a number of “Good Farming Stories” on our website where effective methods are promoted. It is important that as new technology and sustainable methods become available that these are shared.

There needs to be greater investment in research and development for government institutions such as MAF to be more effective. Dairy NZ and Fonterra are doing some good work with model farms and promoting sustainable methods but there needs to be greater effort and urgency in getting poor farmers to change their practices. While there are many farmers receiving environmental awards there are still too many who continually flaunt even basic expectations.

It was disappointing to hear of Fonterra’s abandonment of their organic sector. New Zealand is well behind Europe in organic farming and we seem to be ignoring a growing international market for organic food. There is much to be learned from organic practices, especially when it reduces our dependency on imported fertiliser and one of the major causes of increased nitrogen levels in our rivers.

The Green Party has a plan to make our rivers and lakes clean enough to swim in again. The plan ensures that responsibility for cleaning our rivers is shared fairly, is fiscally responsible and is achievable. The plan has three elements:

1. Set standards for clean water
We will implement clear, robust standards for clean water that set limits to the amount of water being taken from our rivers and lakes, and the amount of pollution going into them. This will include a minimum standard for intensive agricultural practice, which is one of the main causes of our current water quality decline.
2. Introduce a fair charge for irrigation water
We will incentivise the efficient use of water by putting a fair price on its commercial use. This will help stop over-use of our precious water resources. A charge of 10 cents per 1,000 litres would raise $370-570 million dollars per year of which we would use $138 million to fund river clean-up projects by farmers and councils.
3. Support water clean-up initiatives
We will provide financial assistance to farmers and councils to help them clean up our waterways. We will create jobs that help the environment by funding people to work with farmers to fence and plant their streams to keep stock and pollution out of rivers. We will also provide financial assistance to councils to upgrade their sewage treatment plants so that wastewater no longer pollutes our rivers.
A party vote to the Green Party is a vote for cleaner rivers and richer lives.


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