There’s a new report out from the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics NZ showing that New Zealand’s fresh water system is getting worse, all over the place, but particularly in the South Island. The full report is here.
Newsroom has a good and lengthy article on it.
The news is bracingly bad.
76% of our native freshwater fish are threatened or face extinction.
A quarter of freshwater invertebrates are at risk or threatened with extinction.
33% of freshwater plants and 67% of native birds that rely on fresh water environments for feeding and breeding are similarly threatened.
In the 15 years to 2016, 200 wetlands of over 1,200 hectares were drained and gone.
The vast majority of rivers in farming and forestry areas are polluted.
According to the study:
77, 70, an 67 percent of lakes with upstream catchments in the urban, pastoral, and exotic forest land-cover classes respectively are in poor or very poor ecological health, due to frequent algal blooms and murky water caused by high nutrient concentrations.”
And the sources are from everyone.
The report found that wastewater and stormwater discharge into rivers, the clearing and converting of land, felling and replanting of forests, change from sheep to cattle farming and the use of pesticides are all to blame for the degradation of freshwater environments.
The report essentially blames massive irrigation intensification over the last 15 years, drainage of wetlands, and urban stormwater and wastewater runoff. Southland and Otago in particular show that they are getting much worse.
It also has big sections on water flow variability and algal blooms due to increasing median heat and lower river and stream levels in increased drought through climate change.
Nor are urban water environments any better. Rivers in catchments where urban land cover is dominant, are polluted with nutrients and suspended sediment. Many are polluted with pathogens and heavy metals.
And now for the opinions.
Of course right now the government is focused on keeping the entire country from collapsing. But there’s an RMA reform bill in the House at the moment. Minister Parker in his response to the plan noted that this is intended to assist freshwater health as well as mitigate climate change. Minister Parker has also zero tolerance for Otago Regional Council, putting their freshwater reallocation programme under direct Crown control, and forcing a massive mea culpa from the Otago Regional Council Chair Marion Hobbs.
And I wouldn’t want to be Wellington Water right now – I can bet that Parker is delivering them a good face-full of his mind.
Minister James Shaw said:
The passing of climate change legislation, establishing an independent climate change commission to guide emissions reductions, strengthening the Emissions Trading Scheme, committing to plant 1 billion trees, and planning a just transition to a low emissions economy are all vital steps this Government has taken.”
Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said the report highlighted the importance of law changes last year to protect native fish, and the work the Department of Conservation was leading to develop a new national biodiversity strategy, commenting:
“The freshwater report outlines well the pressures on native fish such as īnanga/whitebait and the importance of reducing sediment and nitrogen pollution and barriers to fish migration to ensure healthy fish populations.”.
“I’m proud of the work done last year to strengthen legal protection for native freshwater fish and DOC’s efforts now on specific measures to look after whitebait in streams and rivers around Aotearoa.
“The Biodiversity Strategy is currently being finalised after public consultation. It will commit New Zealand to a clear vision and specific measures to better protect our unique freshwater habitats and plants and wildlife,” she said.
Forest and Bird were outraged and commented that “Irrigated land has increased by 100% in only 15 years. It is now the single biggest water user in the country, accounting for nearly half of all water taken out of the ecosystem.”
Federated Farmers underlined the uncertainty of river and stream flows and increasing drought as a critical reason to have more water storage.
Water storage is not just about securing supply for primary production purposes, though as has been underlined with the COVID-19 lockdown, agriculture is vital to our economic future and standard of living,” said Federated Farmers environment spokesperson Chris Allen.
“Storage schemes allow us to harvest water at times of high flow for when we need it over the hot months in our cities and towns, and for all our industries. Better storage above and below ground is an investment in our future.
Greenpeace pointed to their own Green Covid Response plan.
Fish and Game New Zealand – in line with Minister Parker – had a crack at local authorities: “Regional Councils under the RMA have a legal obligation to protect the environment for future generations, and this report shows that they have failed to do that.” They also expected the Government to get on with delivering on their Essential Freshwater program aimed at stopping further degradation in water quality and reversing past damage.”
They also pointed out that there is tonnes of public concern about this from multiple surveys.
On a personal note I want to give a shoutout to all the volunteers from all the groups who defend their wetlands, to the farmers who fence their farms and companies who support it, the thousands of volunteers who clean up weeds and plant great stretches of riverbank, the local councillors and staff who argue to get the funds to prosecute the polluters and rebuild our land.
With the Prime Minister signalling on Monday that we will soon turn the engine of New Zealand back on again, I heartily agree with all who want our economy and our agricultural and urban practices to deliver us different – a nation that regains the health and spirit of our rivers, lakes, and streams.