Dave Armstrong: Meet ‘Smithable’ rivers – officially safe for a dip, but no-one would dare
By Dave Armstrong.
OPINION: It was a simple trip to Auckland last month. Yet the expensive plane fares and astronomical cost of a motel had me marvelling at the way my parents managed to take us on at least one holiday each year. They did it with four kids, a crappy car and one income. Not that we holidayed in luxury. Usually it was camping, though Dad’s work did have a rough lodge, in the middle of farmland, where we occasionally bunked down.
We swam in a deep river pool, and went for day-long adventures where I first saw tadpoles, eels and watercress. Once my best friend, recently arrived from a Pacific Island, caught an eel with a gaff he found in the shed. Many city folk don’t even know what a gaff is, assuming it to be Nick Smith’s latest public utterance.
We also went tramping in the Orongorongo Valley near Wainui. While Dad sunbathed on the rocks, we swam in the river. In my entire childhood I never got ill from swimming in or drinking river water.
Was I lucky? Perhaps, though my wife had an almost identical experience up country. “Just check upstream a bit,” warned her Dad, “to make sure there’s not a dead animal lying in the stream.” They rarely found one and never got sick.
Millennials get justifiably irritated when baby-boomers like me reminisce about the “good old days”, not unlike the four Yorkshiremen in the famous ‘luxury’ Monty Python sketch. Not everything was good back then. Our police were often brutal, our politicians unenlightened and God help you if you were different.
And our natural environment wasn’t always great. Factories poured untreated effluent into rivers, dogs were regularly tested for hydatids, and numbers of endangered animals such as kakapo were declining.
Yet on the issue of fresh water, I suspect my generation is right – it really was much better back then. For a start, dairying was less profitable and good money could be made in meat and wool. Dry Canterbury was better known for its lamb and it was usually wetter places like Taranaki where small dairy farms could be found.
But as dairy prices rose, sheep and beef farmers found that buying cows and converting to dairy could make them a far bigger killing than sending beasts to the works. All you had to do was add water – and a few chemicals.
Since I was a kid, millions of tonnes of phosphates and nitrates have run off into New Zealand’s waterways, not to mention cow excrement. I was an adult when I first heard the term E coli and campylobacter, and learned that giardia was not an airport in New York.
So with my fond childhood memories of rivers, I now have to decide if our Government is genuinely trying to improve fresh water quality, as many farmers say they are. Critics have said that the Government has simply moved the goalposts and made it far easier to declare a river “swimmable”.
“Instead of dealing with the sources of faecal contamination going into our rivers,” said Choose Clean Water spokesperson Marnie Prickett, “National just wants to make it legal for more poo to be in the places New Zealanders swim.” Nick Smith strongly denies this.
What worries me is that if I swim in a river Smith deems “swimmable” I could still have, according to the Ministry of Health, a one-in-twenty chance of getting sick from campylobacter. Or looking at it another way, if 20 cabinet ministers all go swimming in a river and only Nick Smith gets violently ill, then it’s okay to swim there.
Smith would call my assumption “junk science” and reckons the above risk would only occur 15 per cent of the time. But even if he is right it is still a concern. Perhaps we need a new term – “Smithable” – which denotes an officially “swimmable” river that no sane person would swim in.
I suspect that this election year, it may be baby boomers like me, who have fond memories of swimming in clean rivers, who will ultimately decide whether Nick Smith’s scheme is a good one or whether he, like most of our rivers, is full of excrement.