90% swimmable

The Government has announced a target of 90 per cent of New Zealand’s lakes and rivers meeting swimmable water quality standards by 2040, alongside releasing new policy, regulations, information maps and funding to help achieve the new goal.

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“This ambitious plan to improve the water quality in our lakes and rivers recognises that New Zealanders expect to be able to take a dip in their local river or lake without getting a nasty bug,” Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith says.

“The plan is backed up by national regulations requiring stock to be fenced out of waterways, new national policy requirements on regional councils to strengthen their plan rules on issues such as sewage discharges and planting riparian margins, a new Freshwater Improvement Fund and new maps that clearly identify where improvements are needed.

“This 90 per cent goal by 2040 is challenging and is estimated to cost the Government, farmers and councils $2 billion over the next 23 years. It will make us a world leader in water quality standards for swimming, and that’s important for New Zealand’s growing tourism industry. It will return our rivers and lakes to a standard not seen in 50 years while recognising that our frequent major rainfalls mean a 100 per cent standard is not realistic.”

The target covers the length of rivers over 0.4m deep and the perimeters of lakes greater than 1.5km, which total 54,000km. The plan is about improving the frequency that we can swim in our lakes and rivers, noting that even our cleanest rivers breach swimming water quality standards during storms.

This is a very important point – nature is sometimes to blame for lower quality.

The swimmable target is based on meeting the water quality standard at least 80 per cent of the time, in line with European and US definitions. Currently 72 per cent by length meet this definition, and the target is to increase that to 90 per cent by 2040. This means an additional 10,000km of swimmable rivers and lakes by 2040, or 400km per year.

“The maps I am releasing today provide the most comprehensive and consistent information on water quality for swimming of New Zealand’s rivers and lakes ever published. These will help focus councils and communities on improving their local water quality, as well as help people make decisions about where they can safely swim. The maps are connected to the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa website that provides real-time information on water quality, which is particularly relevant for the fair and intermittent categories.

“The challenge of improving water quality varies significantly across New Zealand. This plan requires improvements in water quality across all regions and all categories. The target not only requires an improvement in areas that are swimmable, ie into the fair category, but also rivers and lakes being moved from fair to good, and good to excellent. Regional targets to achieve the national goals are to be worked through with regional councils by March 2018. Some regional targets will need to be greater than the 90 per cent and others, where it is more difficult to achieve, will be less.

The National Policy Statement (NPS) for Freshwater Management is being strengthened to support the new 90 per cent by 2040 swimmability target, as well as changes to address the issues of ecological health and nutrients by:

  • replacing “wadeable” with “swimmable”
  • adding macroinvertebrate monitoring for ecological health
  • strengthening references to “Te Mana o te Wai”
  • clarifying the consideration of economic opportunities
  • requiring instream limits for nitrogen and phosphorus
  • clarifying inclusion of coastal lakes and lagoons
  • clarifying the policy on exceptions
  • strengthening the requirement for monitoring and improving quality.

“The new regulations on excluding stock from waterways are an important part of this plan to improve water quality. The rules progressively apply to dairy, pig, dairy support, beef and deer farms from this year to 2030 relative to the steepness of the country, at an expected cost of $367 million,” Dr Smith says.

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“We are today opening bids for the new $100m Freshwater Improvement Fund and announcing the eligibility and assessment criteria, which closes on 13 April. This comes on top of the $350m already committed by the government, of which more than $140m has been spent on specific river and lake clean-ups.

“This is the third phase of the Government’s work programme to improve New Zealand freshwater management and builds on the NPS introduced in 2011 and the National Objectives Framework in 2014. I commend and acknowledge the Freshwater Iwi Leaders Group and the Land and Water Forum, who have worked tirelessly in assisting with these policy developments.”

The detail of the NPS and Stock Exclusion Regulations are open for consultation until 28 April 2017.

Deterioration in most waterways has taken place over many years and can’t be reversed quickly.

Lower standards of water quality have a number of causes, one of which is intensification of farming and Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy says farmers are up for the freshwater challenge the new standards pose:

New freshwater reforms will result in 56,000 km more fences protecting New Zealand waterways from stock – enough to go round the world one and a half times, says Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy.

The new rules on stock exclusion are part of the Government’s plans announced today setting a target for 90% of rivers and lakes to be swimmable by 2040.

“Farmers have made huge progress in recent years to improve their environmental practices and this will be another important step forward. Dairy farmers have already voluntarily fenced off over 24,000km of waterways,” says Mr Guy.

“We know that stock standing in or regularly crossing waterways can do significant damage. While dairy farmers have voluntarily fenced off around 96% of their waterways, we want to extend this to other types of farms as well.

“The proposed national regulation would ensure that dairy cattle, beef cattle, pigs and deer are kept out of waterways.

“We need to ensure the changes are practical for farmers, so the exclusions would be implemented in a staged process starting this year through to 2030, depending on the stock type and land slope.

“There are long term benefits for the primary industries and wider economy from these reforms. Overseas markets and consumers increasingly demand a strong environmental performance over and above regulatory requirements. In this context, protecting New Zealand’s natural advantage has never been more important.

“No single organisation or group is solely responsible for improving our water quality. Meeting the target will take a collective effort, but the primary industries have a key contribution to make.

“In the meantime, the Ministry for Primary Industries continues to work with the primary sectors to invest in good ideas which promote environmental best practice. One example is the Farm Systems Change program, which identifies high preforming farms and uses farmers’ networks to spread their knowledge.

“Another is a major programme under the Primary Growth Partnership, called Transforming the Dairy Value Chain. Under this programme effluent management systems have been improved, and every region now has a riparian planting guideline developed in conjunction with regional councils.

“As a Government we are committed to growing the primary industries at the same time as improving water quality. Water storage schemes like Central Plains Water and the Waimea Community Dam help in this by taking pressure off groundwater sources and maintaining summer river flows, delivering both economic and environmental benefits.

“We also know that science will play a major role in improving our freshwater. The ‘Our Land and Water’ National Science Challenge is investing $96.9 million over 10 years into this, hosted by AgResearch and involving six other Crown research institutes.

IrrigationNZ says the outcomes are achievable:

“Achievable outcomes within a reasonable timeframe” is how IrrigationNZ CEO, Andrew Curtis, described today’s release of the government’s ‘Clean Water’ document. He hoped however that the target of 90% of rivers and lakes being swimmable by 2040 didn’t let urban waterways ‘off the hook’.

“Farmers have received the lion’s share of blame for New Zealand’s water quality degradation and despite evidence backing up the contribution cities and industries make to poor water quality, they have largely escaped the finger-pointing. I’m hoping the Government will call every New Zealander to account for water quality, recognising we all contribute to the problem, therefore we must all work together to enact the solution” said Curtis.

Poor water quality is not only a rural problem nor is it solely due to bad farming practices.

IrrigationNZ was pleased the Government had recognised the important economic contribution farmers make to our communities, stating that Regional Councils must consider the economic wellbeing of their community when making decisions about water allocation.

“Farmers and growers make significant investments in irrigation infrastructure and on-farm efficiencies, and the return on that investment is spent in towns and cities throughout New Zealand. We all benefit from irrigation and it’s important councils don’t impose restrictions that negatively impact the viability of our primary sector.” . . 

DairyNZ welcomed the new rules:

“The new stock exclusion requirements for dairy cattle is a strong endorsement of the hard work dairy farmers have done on their farms to protect waterways,” says DairyNZ CEO Tim Mackle.

“The on-farm fencing requirements in the new rules have already been met by 97.1 percent of dairy farmers around the country, and the target by May, a month ahead of the new requirements, is to be 100 percent, with all waterways running through dairy farms will be fenced off and all stock crossings bridged,” he says.

“This means that right now very few dairy cattle have any access to waterways, and in just two months’ time no dairy cattle – that’s zero dairy cattle – should have access to waterways on our farms.”

Dr Mackle says fencing – currently 27,109 kms – is always set back a healthy distance from waterways, varying from farm to farm depending on the soil type and contour of the land.

“This ensures the optimum levels of bacteria, nutrients and sediment are filtered. Farmers also keep cows off sensitive areas in the vicinity of the fenced waterways, for example, in wet weather.”

“There’s still a way to go in some areas, and dairy farmers are well aware of that. We acknowledge that improving New Zealand waterways is a long journey, as today’s announcement recognises. The good news is dairy farmers around the country are leading the way in protecting freshwater on their farms.

“Our dairy farmers can be immensely proud of the work they are undertaking for the environment on their farms, and many are also doing work to improve their surrounding communities – and all New Zealanders, whether they are living in towns and cities, or in rural communities, can also be proud of the efforts of our dairy farmers,” says Dr Mackle.

As part of their commitment to the environment, dairy farmers are also planting vegetation along waterways, and using native plants such as manuka, cabbage trees and flaxes, as well as native grasses, that have superior ability to filter and slow run-off, he says.

“Added to this, all dairy farms now have dedicated effluent management systems with effluent ponds, just like towns around the country. Areas such as the dairy shed and yards drain directly into these systems where the effluent is stored and later used by farmers to fertilise their land.

“It’s also encouraging to see the rates of dairy effluent related prosecutions and abatement notices continuing to decline dramatically, and an improvement in overall effluent non-compliance, which is the lowest it has been in recent years.”

Over the past three years farmers have invested over $1 billion dollars in environmental protection measures, he says.

“About 70 percent of this expenditure has been on effluent systems that feature the latest technology. Farmers are also well along the way in preparing environmental management plans for their farms, working closely with environmental advisors and their local councils.”

Dr Mackle says while a number of forward-thinking farmers began environmental initiatives a decade and more ago, the actions of the past three years are recorded in the Sustainable Dairying Water Accord.

“The accord is an independently audited report. It can be seen as the commitment of every single one of New Zealand’s 14,000 dairy farmers to play their part in helping to ensure that their fellow Kiwis can enjoy cleaner freshwater.”

Full results of year three of the water accord are currently being audited and will be announced in April.

For year two water accord results see www.dairynz/wateraccord

Horticulture NZ chief executive Mike Chapman also welcomed  the clean water plans:

“Water is, of course, the lifeblood of horticulture and our commercial growers have been innovating for some time with environmentally sustainable ways of growing healthy, fresh food for all New Zealanders,” Mr Chapman says.

“Growers implement a number of techniques to protect waterways near their properties. These including riparian planting and management adjacent to waterways and silt traps to collect run-off caused by rain and stop anything entering nearby waterways.

“Riparian planting has many benefits, particularly to water quality, but it is also very expensive and growers bear the cost of that.

“It is great to see the Government opening applications for the $100 million Freshwater Improvement Fund, and we will certainly be looking at projects that could be part of that to create more and better ways to protect waterways near growing land.

“But it is also important to note that water quality in New Zealand is not solely the domain of people in the primary industries or rural land owners. The bulk of New Zealanders live in cities and they both use a lot of water and create a lot of waste water. So instead of always pointing the finger at those outside the cities, urban dwellers might want to consider what their contribution to clean water in New Zealand might be to help our growers continue to feed them healthy food in an environmentally sustainable way.”

The Environmental Defence Society (EDS) has welcomed the announcement:

“The announcement is generally consistent with some of the Land and Water Forum’s recommendations,” said EDS CEO Gary Taylor.

“For the first time, swimmability is the objective in freshwater management.

“We will have transparency regarding which lakes and rivers are in fact swimmable and which are not. This will vary across seasons and places. Regional councils will need to improve degraded systems with a target of achieving 90% swimmability by 2040.

“The standard for what constitutes swimmable rivers and lakes is comparable with the EU Water Framework Directive. Whether the target date is acceptable will become clear during the consultation phase to follow.

“Other recommendations by the Land and Water Forum have been accepted by Government. These include providing greater rigour on nitrate levels and on macroinvertebrates in the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management. However, some of the detail on these issues appears to raise questions that need further exploration.

“One important issue that hasn’t been adequately addressed is turbidity and sediment – water clarity. The Forum is doing more work on this later in the year. . . 

Forest and Bird isn’t impressed:

Forest & Bird has condemned the government’s new water quality standards, warning New Zealanders that they lock in current levels of water pollution and allow for a 5-fold increase in the chance of getting sick from swimming in a river.

“Despite an explicit assurance from Minister Smith that the new water standards would provide for human and ecosystem health, he has failed to deliver on either of these things,” says Forest & Bird CEO Kevin Hague.

Contrary to the overwhelming public concern for the state of New Zealand’s rivers and lakes, the government’s announcement today does not require any improvement to our water quality, except for the very worst rivers.

“If your local river is polluted now, the government does not require that its water quality is improved to a standard that is safe for people and the ecosystem that it should support. Instead, all they propose is that the current situation is maintained,” says Mr Hague. . . 

What would he and his organisation do when nature causes the problems?.

The Otago Regional Council had concerns about only three waterways in January, two alerts were due to high rainfall and the poor water quality in the Kakanui River was caused by birds?

Clean water is one of the measures of sustainability, maintaining clean waterways and improving those with poor quality is a long-term and expensive process but the goal of 90% swimmable is achievable.

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3 Responses to 90% swimmable

  1. Mr E says:

    How does DOC pose to keep Deer and Pigs out of waterways?

    If we are to exclude introduced species like cattle and deer out of waterways what about introduced bird species. What should be done regarding those problems? Who will pay?

    There can be no argument – introduced water fowl contribute ecoli to the water. That is 100% fact.

    The question is how much and the significance of the problem.

    It is also 100% fact that there is a growing amount of evidence/reports that are drawing attention to water fowl ecoli. In my opinion this is growing evidence of the significance of waterfowl.

    http://www.waikatodhbnewsroom.co.nz/2016/05/25/hamilton-lake-lake-rotoroa-e-coli-levels/

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/89697102/swims-in-hamilton-lake-could-be-on-the-cards

    The problem with assessing the significance is cost – it is a lot.

    http://www.waterquality.org.nz/home/faecal-source-tracking/source-tracking-strategy-2/animal-2/

    Identifying bird ecoli with ‘medium certainty’ will cost $551 -900 per sample.

    So what should be done?

    Being as frank as I can – I think councils need to cast their gaze at water fowl. Perhaps a law change is required to ensure introduced water fowl interests are held accountable. At the moment the opposite law exists.

    Regarding Cattle fenced from waterways – this will be of great concern to many farmers. For many I expect it will become uneconomic to run those species. For some land may be retired and economic pain with ensue.

    For some areas noxious weeds will go unchecked and environmental degradation will occur.

    I am curious as to where Beef and Lamb NZ is with their stance.

    I am unimpressed by this Cattle policy but I understand the need for it.

    In my view this policy is the Government responding to ill informed public pressure.

    In my view this policy rewards those illogically attacking farmers whilst turning their back on their own liability.

    This is less of a black mark against National and more of a black mark against the Feds, and farming industry groups. In my view they have been ineffective at countering the illogical nimby-ism. And eventually the govt has caved to silliness.

    The double standard is growing and the urban rural gap is growing.

    The Kiwi sense of fairness must also be diminishing.

  2. TraceyS says:

    “If we are to exclude introduced species like cattle and deer out of waterways what about introduced bird species.”

    Indeed, Mr E, the only crap I see on our river banks is that of duck and geese.

    I was having a grumpy day on that day driving into the city on the day when I heard this announcement, and while not wholly surprised by it, I came home all fired up ready to expect the “other half” to be on the same page as me. Particularly regarding fencing. Well, he was not. Said he was going the fence the bluffs off anyway (we have already fenced the more accessible waterways). This involves a large area of land but the stock generally don’t go down there anyway – unless they are desperate. And that’s not how we farm. So the real loss of farmable land is minimal.

    “Regarding Cattle fenced from waterways – this will be of great concern to many farmers. For many I expect it will become uneconomic to run those species. For some land may be retired and economic pain with ensue.”

    Agreed. Meandering streams will be particularly costly to deal with.

    “For some areas noxious weeds will go unchecked and environmental degradation will occur.”

    There will be a problem if environmental interests next push for restrictions on pesticides which, by definition, include herbicides. I have seen this and while I’m not a great fan of chemical applications, especially near water, there is an elemental of practicality to be considered here.

  3. TraceyS says:

    MFE website says the part of the river where we swim is “fair”. I would call it “pristine”. A place so untouched that the eels will come up to the shore to say hello. We have never been sick from the water there. Further down the river where the public have access is rated “good”. I wouldn’t let my kids swim there. Something is not right with these maps.

    An aside. Has anyone noticed that the user experience of many govt websites is awful? On the day of the freshwater policy announcement I couldn’t even get onto the MFE website. And the IRD makes a relatively small change for GST filing on its site and all hell breaks loose. Couldn’t even tell for sure that it was properly filed. Why can’t we have better websites?

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