Experts debunk National Policy Statement on Freshwater

This week Environment Minister Nick Smith released a long awaited and long overdue National Policy Statement on Freshwater. Unfortunately he took the teeth out of what was a sound draft policy statement and removed the parts which would have made the most progress towards cleaning up our seriously polluted rivers and lakes.

The governments’ announcement that they will be injecting $15 million over the next two years into cleaning up our waterways, is overshadowed by the fact that they will also be forming an Irrigation Acceleration Fund which will receive $35 million within five years, and is expected to receive total funding of $400.

Fish and Game’s chief executive Bryce Johnson has claimed that this package will potentially pave the way for further 1 million cows in New Zealand.

“Contrary to some claims by primary industry groups, our rivers and lakes are not in good shape at all – half of our lakes and 90% of lowland rivers are classed as polluted. That’s fact.” says Mr Johnson.
“The science shows our declining water quality is linked to intensive agriculture, and yet yesterday’s pro-irrigation package will potentially mean 1 million more cows, and reduced stream flows to deal with the increased pollution.”


The Science Media Centre approached water management experts to seek their feedback on the initiatives:

Dr Mike Joy, Director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystem Management and Modeling at Massey University comments:

“It’s hard to see how this long overdue freshwater NPS will make any difference to the state of NZs waterways when it contains no national standards and farming intensification arguably the biggest issue for freshwater quality and quantity is not addressed.

“Despite the RMA being labelled ‘effects based’ it failed to address the main impact on freshwater quality, that is, diffuse nutrient pollution. The only nutrient inputs to freshwaters that are presently controlled or indeed will be controlled under this NPS are from point sources (out of pipes). On dairy farms this is the waste from the relatively short time that cows spend in the shed. For towns and industry it’s the wastewater discharged out of pipes into rivers.

“The bigger problem is the diffuse waste from intensive dairy farming (through urine and farm nutrient run-off and leaching) is only mentioned once in the NPS (in Policy A4) and only applies to new discharges or increases from now on (actually for applications in by July 1st allowing
for a last minute rush of applications to beat the changes). This effectively means that regional councils will (if they chose to) be able to regulate the main impact on freshwater quality -farming intensity.

“However, given that prior to the NPS the councils chose not to control intensification even though it is obviously having a detrimental effect on water quality it seems unlikely this will change. Thus, we can expect no overall change in water quality any time soon.

“As in the existing RMA freshwater indigenous biodiversity is highlighted (NPS Objective A1), but after 20 years of that legislation we now have close to 2/3rds of our freshwater fish listed as threatened along with our freshwater crayfish and mussel we can see that completely failed that objective. These species are our freshwater “miners canaries” and their threatened status says more than any number of reports can about the disregard local end central government have shown to our freshwaters to date.

“This national policy statement continues that trend of policy containing lots of nice words and lofty ideals but no teeth or standards, so this is a huge opportunity lost and we can expect more of the same the further degrading of the ‘clean green’ myth.”

Professor David Hamilton, BOP Chair in Lakes Management & Restoration at Waikato University and President of the New Society Freshwater Sciences Society comments:

“Over the past decade or so New Zealanders have witnessed accelerated degradation of many waterbodies in response to diffuse nutrients derived mostly from agricultural sources.

“The limits-based approach in the NPS is designed to arrest this degradation and will ensure that land use practices are aligned with the national goal of ensuring clean freshwater in downstream environments”.

“The work programme for the ‘Fresh Start for Fresh Water’ has already identified the potential for ‘gold rushes’ of land use change prior to the implementation of the NPS in Freshwater Management.

“Such changes would be completely at odds with the desired outcome of the NPS, particularly for catchments that are sensitive to pollution, or that have specific cultural or environmental freshwater values, in addition to where available freshwater is already over-allocated such as in areas of Canterbury.

“The Society wishes to see the NPS implemented in a way which will prevent further land use change and degradation of selected waterbodies so that costly clean-up steps are avoided.

“New Zealanders are already bearing a substantial cost for the protection of Lake Taupo and the restoration of the Rotorua lakes and the Waikato River. There is some acceptance that this cost will be spread across the community given that there was limited knowledge of the implications of past land use changes on water quality and quantity, but this is no longer the case and we cannot continue to externalise the costs to communities and the New Zealand taxpayer of pollution by private industries.

“The irrigation and clean-up fund of up to $400 million approved by Cabinet, to fast-track regional irrigation schemes is an example of externalising the costs of greater water efficiency and expanding the irrigation infrastructure while at the same time the Fresh Start for Fresh Water Clean-up Fund will provide only $15 million in additional funding over two years to help communities clean up waterways that are affected by historical pollution.”

Angus McIntosh – Professor and Mackenzie Foundation Chair in Freshwater Ecology, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The need to halt declines in freshwater biodiversity values is critical. The current situation is really quite grim. In a recent survey of small waterways on the Canterbury Plains we have found over 80% are either moderately or severely polluted. For Canterbury urban waterways (pre earthquake), the situation is even worse.

“Delays or a business as usual approach will see substantial loss of water-related ecosystem services (e.g., processing of nutrients and decomposition), increased threats to public health (e.g., toxic algal blooms) and very likely even extinctions. For example, 81% of our native galaxiid freshwater fishes have been ranked as endangered in the most recent classification. Species like the Canterbury mudfish reside completely within the agricultural area of the Canterbury Plains and are on a knife edge as their nationally critical status indicates.

“The National Policy Statement (NPS) offers the chance to halt these declines and rehabilitate damaged ecosystems, but only if we get the details right. Appropriate environmental limits are needed. Our research indicates an environmental tipping point around 20% fine sediment (i.e., silt and sand) in a stream, for example. Any more than that, and biodiversity is substantially degraded. Moreover, a whole water network approach needs to be applied. Indications in the NPS that outstanding sites should be selected is worrying because it implies the rest can be left.

“That idea was firmly rejected by the NPS Board of Inquiry because it ignores the fact that freshwater ecosystems form networks. To reverse the declines, environmental limits and riparian protection need to be applied across the board. The scale of that is huge. There are over 8000 km of small waterways on the Canterbury Plains that largely go unmanaged because they are so small that they are regarded as drains or ditches. I would hope a decent chunk of the government funding announced will go towards dealing with those sort of issues.”

Professor Jenny Webster-Brown, Director, The Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management University of Canterbury & Lincoln University, comments:

On the NPS:

“As a framework, the NPS seeks an outcome for freshwater systems which we (and I believe most New Zealanders) strongly support, but it stops short of defining the conditions that will make this outcome a reality; nationally consistent environmental limits for water take and for water quality.

“Therefore the next important step, once this policy statement is in effect, is the determination of these environmental limits. This is anticipated in 2012, and is essential if we are to move significantly beyond the ideals originally embodied in the RMA, in reference to freshwater. The RMA has not prevented widespread degradation of water quality in New Zealand, so a better approach is certainly needed if we are even to maintain current water conditions, let alone seek an improvement.

On the Fresh Start for Fresh Water Clean-up Fund

“This fund for councils to restore historically degraded freshwater environments is very welcome. Restoration of these systems and their catchments is an expensive process. To be successful, restoration requires two-fold support; funding for research to identify successful restoration strategies, and funding for restoration logistics and resources. One without the other has a limited chance of success and too many of our most impacted catchments and water systems have neither. The $15million fund over 2 years should help restoration efforts get off the ground, but a longer term commitment will be required to ensure successful restoration of many systems.”

6 Comments Posted

  1. And despite saying the air is cleaner and government committments to reducee emmissions, he supports development of coal mining …

  2. So the PM’s only response to the question on BBC Hard Talk about our 100% pure promotion (he is after all our Tourism Minister) when we have polluted rivers and lakes – is to say the air is cleaner than in other places (just as well we have hyrdro dams) and the water is not that bad compared to other places …

    He had nothing to say on what the government was doing in expecting farmers to meet minimum standards that protected waterways or what the Freshwater statement would contribute to meeting our proud claim – now we know why.

  3. Think my last comment was moderated because of my username, but it was a genuine comment and not an automated one at all. I was trying to make the point that the general population of the world does not realize just how polluted the majority of our worlds freshwater lakes, rivers, and basins have become. Over the last 10 years we have seen a drastic local hike in the pollution levels of surrounding bodies of water.

    [frog: Yes, it appears that was the reason it got caught by the spam filter. I have now approved it and it appears above this one.]

  4. It still amazes me that the general population doesnt realize just how polluted our freshwater lakes, rivers, and basins have become world wide. The visual change in my area of Newport Beach, CA is extremely apparent and i would not set foot in any of the local Orange County lakes at this point!

    Thank you for writing this article, and hopefully it will open more eyes to this global issue.

  5. Well those are just 4 specialist scientist’s opinions. For every scientist with their so-called facts on the environment, I can find 4 CSC engineers and geographers who can be paid to disagree.

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