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Our damaged rivers and streams

Written By: - Date published: 9:51 am, April 23rd, 2020 - 25 comments
Categories: david parker, Environment, james shaw, uncategorized, water - Tags:

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.

25 comments on “Our damaged rivers and streams ”

  1. RedLogix 1

    In addition to thoroughly endorsing the OP, can I also make a plea to any commenter to avoid to the extent possible the temptation to descend into anti-farmer rantings.

    The state of our waterways is largely a symptom of a deeper problems, and farmers are just one link in the chain. Most … although obviously not all … do care about their land and landscapes, and this is a motivation we should be encouraging and supporting. Abuse is counterproductive.

    • Robert Guyton 1.1

      "farmers are just one link in the chain."

      Can you quantify that, RedLogix – how big a link does farming represent?

      • RedLogix 1.1.1

        A very proximate and substantial link obviously. But farmers do not operate in a vacuum, they too are subject to forces outside of the farm gate that cannot be ignored in this discussion.

        • Robert Guyton

          There's a significant difference between "farmers" and "farming". I don't blame farmers. I do blame farming.

          • RedLogix

            Look, we both want the same thing … but it's the willingness of NZ farmers to enthusiastically and competently engage with the changes we hope for that is essential.

            These are for the most part farmers are ordinary kiwis doing their best to juggle the weather, the market, the bank and their land to stay in business. These are people with quite enough risk on their plate already; demanding they dollop on even more risk with systemic changes the aren't familiar with is a recipe for failure.

            We need the NZ farming community to see the potential of permaculture and commit to driving through the details. And supporting individuals when it's doesn't quite go to plan. Sitting behind a keyboard typing wishes will not cut mustard with any real farmer with livestock and land just out his back door demanding attention.

            There are of course some pioneering individuals who have shown it's possible, but they have yet to gain the confidence of the wider farming community … what concrete steps do you think would help?

            • georgecom

              part of the governments post covid19 redirect could and should be a tens of millions of dollars fund to promote and assist with a move into organic farming and most certainly a component of that is permaculture. And already prefaced by various groups, a similar fund to plant along water ways. As well as a significant chunk of infrastructure spending being directed toward water – drinking, sewerage and storm water replacement & upgrades.

              • RedLogix

                Yes. It's also a once in a generation opportunity for a Labour govt to reach out and start healing the old rural/urban cultural resentments that have festered for so long in this country. They go back to events over a century ago during WW1 during Massey's govt. It's long overdue both sides buried that old hatchet.

                Doing something concrete like this would go so much further than words.

            • Hunter Thompson II

              Thanks for your constructive comments, Redlogix. As I see it, we need a system of agriculture where:

              1. The farmer makes a reasonable profit

              2. The farming activity carried on is truly environmentally friendly and genuinely sustainable.

              If these two points mean taxpayer funding is required to get things on track, so be it. It would be an investment in the nation's future (as well as for the next generation).

              We are all trustees when it comes to water resources.

              • Drowsy M. Kram

                Good ideas; might be hard to sell to the "She's a pretty communist" crowd.

                If National adopted some of those ideas as policy then maybe it could work?

              • Robert Guyton

                "The farming activity carried on is truly environmentally friendly and genuinely sustainable."

                A contradiction in terms, Hunter.

            • RedLogix

              Apologies for the appalling grammar in my comment above at 2.45pm… fuck me angry

            • Robert Guyton

              "Sitting behind a keyboard typing wishes will not cut mustard "

              Isn't that what you are doing, RedLogix?

              In any case, "any real farmer with livestock and land just out his back door demanding attention." – real farmers have land "demanding attention"?

              What does that mean? Land "demanding" to be treated with respect? Love?

              What "concrete steps do" I think would help?

              "Concrete" – really? Do you have no feel for language? I've been on dairy farms where concrete is seen as the solution to issues around effluent – *shudders

              Land doesn't "demand attention", it aches for loving attention, intelligent consideration.

              Many farmers do have livestock, that is LIVE stock, just out his/her backdoor, and do you know what, one of those solutions being considered, is to kill them.; cull, they say. So I guess, "deadstock". Pretty clean. Makes ya think (I hope).

              • Drowsy M. Kram

                "Sitting behind a keyboard typing wishes will not cut mustard…"

                Thought that was a lovely example of 'Do as I say, not as I do' – RL does seem very comfortable with issuing instructions ("take it elsewhere"), and may be a part-time mind reader.

            • Robert Guyton

              "These are for the most part farmers are ordinary kiwis doing their best to juggle the weather"

              These are "ordinary kiwis" who claim that the "unexpected" rains that (regularly) wash manure off the sloping pastures, directly into the rivers are "Acts of God" and cannot be mitigated.


  2. Nic181 2

    Interesting, the photo above shows a stream through a farm. Fenced so close to the stream the pasture is grazed to the stream bank. The fences shown were a waste of money. There is zero reduction in runoff. To be effective the fences need to be a minimum of 2m from the bank and the fenced off area planted with a root dense filter. Flax, Toi Toi, or a mix of fast growing natives.

    • Robert Guyton 2.1

      That photo is saddening.

      • In Vino 2.1.1

        Agree. I assume that the photo is intended to show a bad example, a problem needing attention?

    • Incognito 2.2

      FYI, that photo is from the TS Media Library and dates from early 2017.

      • In Vino 2.2.1

        That is even more depressing… Around 2013, my daughter was studying Ecological Science under Mike Joy at Massey. I ended up helping her collect water samples from hills/farms not far from Palmerston North for lab analysis. I think the first collection was from a hilly area where there were sheep.. Signs of degradation from run-off already. By the time she was collecting from the biggest stream (nowhere near any town or other source of pollution yet) even I could see that the eco-system was sick: the water looked a bit like the picture, and the tiny marine insects/creatures in the samples did not look to be thriving.

        Sorry, but despite what harm factories and towns may be contributing, I now believe that farmers of all types have to step up and take responsibility for the harm they are still doing, despite some good efforts here and there. Those efforts need to be everywhere.

  3. Observer Tokoroa 3


    The Farmers by and large, are nice blokes and nice ladies. The majority are very comfortably off. Very.

    Their one mistake is to try and make all the non farmers pay for the ruthless damage that has been done to our water ways. Water is H20. It is not Filth.

    If you cannot farm without damage and Pollution, then you must cease farming.

    Poor Country my Aoteraroa

  4. millsy 4

    The only option, really is to pay farmers not to pollute.

    • KJT 4.1

      Too many places now, where they shouldn't have been allowed to pollute in the first place.

      Where farms have been, developed where the farmers must have known they shouldn't be there.

      All the wetlands that have been drained in the past twenty years, and landscapes, like Southlands, degraded.

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