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The Nats’ new ‘swimmable’ rivers aren’t

Written By: - Date published: 3:08 pm, February 28th, 2017 - 14 comments
Categories: Conservation, farming, farming, sustainability, water - Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been waiting for the dust to settle a bit before wading in to the Nats’ water quality fiasco.

Nick Smith bungled the announcement hugely, allowing the perception that they were going to reach their new goals by allowing twice as much shit in “swimmable” rivers. He then released some incomprehensible statements and called critics “junk science”. Unfortunately the critics are more or less right. An excellent piece on RNZ:

Diving into the muddy water of ‘swimmable’

Previous water quality guidelines had separate criteria for swimming and other activities. A river or lake was graded an A for swimming if tests for the E coli bacterium came back with less than 260 bacteria per 100 ml of water 95 percent of the time.

The criteria for an A for other activities was less strict; the median (middle) value of all the tests taken over a year needed to be less than 260 bacteria per 100 ml. A river or lake got a B if the values were 260-540 E coli, a C if they were 540-1000 and a D if they were over 1000. So, under the old guidelines, some of our lakes or rivers could easily have an A for water sports but a B (or no rating at all) for swimming.

In the government’s new policy document (‘Clean Water’ – PDF, 3.68MB), the threshold number of E coli has been set at 540 bacteria per 100 ml of water. Now to get a blue (“excellent”) rating, the water must have less than 540 E coli for 95 percent of the time.

This is where the government’s new definition of swimmable comes in: blue, green or yellow graded water. In other words, it can be above the threshold for up to 20 percent of the time.

The ‘Clean Water’ document itself is a bit misleading because the new regulations require that at least half the time the E coli levels must be lower than 130 per 100ml, so that the risk of getting Campylobacter is very low – but it can be higher than one in 20 for 20 percent of the time.

What this means is that your chance of getting sick isn’t one in 20 every day. It varies. Sometimes it’s much lower than that and sometimes it’s much higher.

We’ve crunched the numbers so you can see how that risk changes for each of the “swimmable” categories of water. The risk ranges from less than one in 1000 (0.1 percent), to one in 100 (1 percent), one in 20 (5 percent), one in six (15 percent) and even higher.
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The tricky bit is not knowing which days are which, as water can look perfectly swimmable but still have dangerous levels of Campylobacter in it.

What kind of ‘swimmable’ river is that?

Regional councils are meant to notify the public if the E coli levels go above 260 bacteria per 100 ml, so it looks like it’s worth checking before immersing yourself in any “swimmable” New Zealand rivers and lakes.

What kind of public safety is that?

Under the new standards we have up to a 1 in 6 risk of serious infection at the times that we actually swim in rivers, and Smith is trying to hide this fact by fudging around with year-long averages. So (unsurprisingly) David Parker was bang on yesterday:

Labour’s David Parker calls for ‘swimmable’ test to reflect when and where you take a dip

Yes, he [Smith] has moved the goalposts. He is now classifying as swimmable rivers that would not meet the current understanding of swimmable in New Zealand. It’s not fair for him to say that on the basis it’s a higher standard than wadeability that it’s an adequate standard for swimmability because it’s not. I think there should be a 99 per cent confidence level that you won’t get crook.

A river can exceed the E.coli limit up to 20 per cent of the time and still be graded as swimmable. That is 2.4 months a year. This really irks me. From Christmas until the end of February is less than 20 per cent of the year. River quality generally gets worse in summer when flows are lower and water temperatures are higher. It’s also when most people swim in our rivers. Any standard which ignores that reality is rubbish.

Well worth reading the whole interview.

Smith can rant all he likes, but the fact is that this is where we are:

Unswimmable lagoon now deemed swimmable under revised standards

A waterway that Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith once deemed “impossible” to improve to a swimmable condition would be considered swimmable under proposed new standards.

Several other waterways – including dry shingle beds and rivers with toxic algal blooms – would also meet the swimmable standard, despite clearly being unsuitable for swimming.

Critics have said such instances reveal shortcomings in the way the proposed standards are measured.

Also worth reading, Newshub’s series on water. A lot of the pollution is from general agriculture and urban runoff. This is a complex and serious problem requiring complex and serious solutions. Not Nick Smith.

14 comments on “The Nats’ new ‘swimmable’ rivers aren’t”

  1. dukeofurl 1

    Im guessing this has all been written by Fonterra and passed on to National, as it doesnt seem that they understand their own policy- a clue that it isnt theirs

    • Jenny Kirk 1.1

      To be fair to Fonterra they’ve put in quite a bit of funding to specific areas over the last couple of years to help farmers fence off their properties and re-vegetate them. Not enough of course, and this is maybe where the govt also has to step in …. but not to the extent of allowing farmers 20 years or so to fix up the problem.

  2. Jenny Kirk 2

    You say ROb that “A lot of the pollution is from general agriculture and urban runoff”.

    But the NewsHub item – while mentioning the Kawerau mill ‘black river’ also states that
    ” This is where the booming dairy and beef industries must take a fair share of the blame for the high levels of nitrogen being put into New Zealand’s waterways – the direct effect of high volumes of cow urine”.

    And certainly up here in the north, the latter appears to be the case. This appears to have increased substantially since the intensification of dairying and beef cattle over the last eight years or so. And more so since the multi-national corporations took over these big farming units.

    Most of the “urban runoff” goes into the sea – usually when its in stormy weather and over-loading the treatment plants. Urban runoff is a different beast to the contamination caused by farming, and is gradually being dealt to by urban local authorities.

    But I agree, Nick Smith is making an absolute fool of himself – he doesn’t know which way is up, and he obviously doesn’t have a clue how to deal with this huge problem.

  3. weka 3

    “A lot of the pollution is from general agriculture and urban runoff. This is a complex and serious problem requiring complex and serious solutions.”

    Maybe. But only because we start from a position of pollute until you get caught/stopped. We can measure until the cows come home but we’re still measuring in the wrong direction.

    If we started from a position of valuing and protecting water ecosystems in their own right, and then you could only use the water and land there if it could be shown that those activities wouldn’t undermine that ecosystem, it would be much more straightforward.

    Te mana o te wai gives mana to the people, in case anyone was thinking how terrible that might be.

  4. dukeofurl 4

    Interesting new fudge over fencing waterways

    “Northland clean river campaigner Millan Ruka is convinced a new category of “dairy support cattle” is helping dairy farmers dodge having to fence their cows off from waterways.”
    Mr Ruka, who carries out Environmental River Patrol Aotearoa (ERPA) kayak monitoring of Northland rivers, said “dairy support” was a new category of cattle classification helping dairy farmers avoid the challenges of the Fonterra clean streams accord.

    “‘Dairy support’ was not a term I had heard used until about three months ago,” he said.

    Wadeable now becomes swimmable and dairy cows become beef cattle when you are changing definitions rather than cleaning up your act.

    • Jenny Kirk 4.1

      Yes – the NRC is doing a fudge – and its also doing a review of its waterways regulations – again, like the govt, setting a 20-year limit for farmers to get their act together.
      However they’ve called for public submissions and I wouldn’t be surprised if they get quite a few of us cynical types along to challenge their fudge – some time in the next few months. Should be fun !

      • dukeofurl 4.1.1

        The 20 year limit is just a way of ‘creating new facts’ in the streams that they will then say : “Cant be done, you have to loosen the regulations”

  5. keepcalmcarryon 5

    Rub the nats noses in it, there is massive public concern at the trashing of our waterways- thats the whole reason National want to look like they are doing something, their polling clearly shows they are worse than weak here.
    Come on labour, still waiting for that big clear policy on containing/winding back irrigation and dairy expansion.

    • Jenny Kirk 5.1

      David Parker has made a number of public statements, and the Party’s 2014 policy on waterways still stands.
      Labour IS opposed to more dairy expansion, is extremely concerned at what has happened to our waterways over the last eight years, and has ideas on how to resolve that huge contamination within “one generation” – is how they put it. I think that means just a few years.
      If farmers fenced off a buffer zone and revegetated it, then the plant growth would start to use up the nitrates and other nasties leaking into waterways which is causing such a problem. Trouble with the govt’s proposal is they’re giving farmers a lee-way – they don’t really have to do anything for about 20 years. That’s not good enough.

  6. red-blooded 6

    The more I find out about this change in standards the more it smells like shit and starts to make me feel like vomiting. Odd that..!

    This is good reporting, but the problem is that the lightweight media outlets have just run with the good news version of the story: 90% “swimmable” by 2040. That’s certainly the version being run by my local radio station.

  7. roy cartland 7

    An absolute disgrace.

    EVERY river should be safely DRINKABLE to an infant or infirm person 100% of the time. Anything less, and the offending industry or industries shut down immediately. Urban, rural, factory, farm.

    It’s water, FFS!!

  8. JC 8

    Sadly this Post will not receive the Attention it warrants! And /or Deserves!

    Sadly this Post, and many others of the day, (and comments, will only survive a further 24 Hours …

    Sadly most things are ephemeral….

    I’m just Sad about All the effort that’s put in

  9. adam 9

    If Nick is feeling so confident, maybe we should give him a glass of Hutt Valley river water to drink every day.

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