New Government target to see 90 per cent of rivers and lakes ‘swimmable’ by 2040
The Government has announced a new target to have 90 per cent of New Zealand’s lakes and rivers reach swimmable water quality standards by 2040.
The target will be based on meeting the water quality standard at least 80 per cent of the time in line with European and United States definition, Environment Minister Nick Smith said.
Currently 72 per cent by length meet that definition and the target is to increase that to 90 per cent by 2040.
That will mean an extra 10,000 km of swimmable lakes and rivers – or 400 kilometres extra each year.
In a key move, the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management will be changed to replace “wadeable” with “swimmable”.
Other changes included clarifying the consideration of economic opportunities and requiring limits for nitrogen and phosphorus.
“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,” Smith said.
The plan was 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,” Smith said.
The target covers the length of rivers over 0.4m deep and the perimeters of lakes greater than 1.5km, which total 54,000km.
Regional targets to achieve the national goals would 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 plan was 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.”
Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said to ensure the changes were practical for farmers exclusions would be staged, starting this year through to 2030, “depending on the stock type and land slope”.
There were long term benefits for the primary industries and wider economy.
“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.”
The ‘Our Land and Water’ National Science Challenge was investing $96.9m over 10 years into this.
The Green Party said New Zealanders who want swimmable lakes and rivers have been let down by the announcement.
Then party’s spokesperson on water, Catherine Delahunty, said the standards had simply been re-labelled.
“The Prime Minister thinks he can pull a fast one on New Zealanders by just shifting the goalposts and calling what was ‘wadeable’ now ‘swimmable’,” she said.
“New Zealanders asked for rivers clean enough to swim in, not a re-branded version of ‘dirty’.”
The announcement would not stop the pollution of rivers from dirty dairying, or the damaging effects of irrigation.
“By saying that a river with a grade of ‘excellent’ can be so polluted that 1 person in 20 gets sick from a waterborne disease, Bill English is deceiving our kids and grandkids, who are missing out on clean rivers.”
Labour leader Andrew Little described the policy as “a jaw dropping display of political hypocrisy” which picked up what Labour had promised in 2008.
“National has simply wasted nine years by dithering over wadeable versus swimmable standards and our waterways have got dirtier,” he said.
It had buried its head in the sand for nine years “and now surprise, surprise with just 200 days to go the election, the penny has dropped for Nick Smith”.
The policy has also been condemned by environment groups, who say it effectively maintains the status quo.
“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,” said Forest & Bird CEO Kevin Hague.
“In fact, they’ve gone further and reduced swimmability standards. Until now, the standard for our cleanest rivers allowed a one in a hundred chance of getting sick. Now, the proposal is that you will have a one in twenty chance of getting sick – and that’s their top standard.”
Under the new standard, a water body given the highest water quality grade would at times be allowed to exceed standards not considered safe for swimming.
Water quality campaigner Marnie Prickett of the Choose Clean Water group said it was a “fraud” and effectively just changed the definition of swimmable to meet a lower standard.
“They’ve lowered the swimming standards to make it look like they’re doing something, when in actual fact they’re not doing anything… They’ve had eight years to come up with this policy and they’re still trying to fool people with very confusing sounding numbers.
“Instead of dealing with the sources of faecal contamination going into our rivers, National just wants to make it legal for more poo to be in the places New Zealanders swim, to make it look like more rivers and lakes get a pass.
“It’s disgusting and reckless.”
Federated Farmers said the plan showed a willingness from the government to get entire communities on board.
“This is all entirely doable, if everyone plays their part. Farmers have been encouraged by the results they’ve seen in their own catchments, from their own efforts,” said environment spokesman Chris Allen.
“Now we need better science and monitoring processes to really nail what we need to work on, where we do it and how.”
Rules around stock exclusion would need to be “practical,” he said.