Dams will damn our rivers

Fed Farmers have welcomed National’s $400 million water storage and irrigation investment announced yesterday.

Of course Fed Farmers would. Damming rivers to store water for irrigation means farmers can convert more land to dairying, which is highly profitable at the moment.

But Fed Farmers pretend that damming rivers to store water for irrigation won’t hurt the environment.

This is wishful thinking. Nearly every study on water quality shows that land use intensification leads to water pollution.

Fed Farmers say that no water storage or irrigation project will go ahead unless it stacks up environmentally, and they go on to give the example of the Opuha Dam as a project with increased economic performance and environmental benefits. However, in January, the principle surface water quality officer at Environment Canterbury linked the Opuha Dam to an increase in toxic algae blooms in the Opihi River.

National and Fed Farmers want to pretend we can have more cows and cleaner rivers. Unfortunately science shows we can’t.

If they have to resort to citing a river with toxic algal blooms as an example of environmental benefit, then we are in trouble.

Indeed, science shows we have a freshwater crisis on our hands. More than one half of our monitored rivers are unsafe for swimming, one third-of our lakes are unhealthy, and two-thirds of our native freshwater fish are at risk or threatened with extinction.

But there is hope: we have a plan to make our rivers and lakes clean enough to swim in again. We will introduce standards for clean water that deal with the causes of pollution, as well as a charge for irrigation water that will fund water clean-up initiatives.

45 Comments Posted

  1. Photo:

    So more of a “As long as we’re ok, let the others starve” attitude?

    There is a very reasonable chance that world will be overpopulated, by which I mean that the need for resources is greater than we (that’s we the world) can sustainably produce those resources. At that point it all starts going downhill.

    At best, there will be a correction, the world population will adjust to the level at which we can sustainably produce resources. Another scenario is that we will produce non-sustainably, and at some point that will turn to custard. Or we could decide that there will be haves and have-nots, whilst staying within the sustainable envelope.

    There’s a debate over what the sustainable population of the world is. Some think we are already beyond it. But even the craziest folk (current crazy record is I believe 700 billion) agree there is a limit.

    So at some point, those who survive will have let those that don’t starve. Would you prefer to be a starver, or a starvee? Would you like your grandchildren to survive, or someone elses?

  2. Yes, despite his shotgun approach, blasting friend and foe alike, Phil does have a point. Farming animals to the extent NZ does and relying on ever more intense dairying is the wrong way to go for many, many reasons. The effect on water, which is what this post is about, is one of them. We don’t feed the poor with meat, we feed the relatively rich – it is about money and I’m with BJ on this, there are some things we should not be selling and our environment is a major one. We need to think much more seriously about methods and types of food production.

  3. photonz1 When am I going to see that data. I was rather expecting a web address or at least a acknowledgment from you. If you can’t get the data immediately, I’m willing to wait. However, so far I have not seen any data that backs up this utopia you described earlier.

  4. Yes James, I’ve been wading and feel pretty wet. I wouldn’t swim down there in winter or after rain for at least a couple of days. The site recommends checking recent tests before putting togs on. The site also makes numerous statements about the degradation of water quality being associated with intensification.
    Such as “All catchments with more than 30% of the catchment under dairy farming had poor water quality.”.
    “the worst streams for water quality (Washpool and Wairuna) had the highest proportions of dairy farming (79 and 51%, respectively)”

    Photon, I am not anti-dairying, but the affects on water quality from intensive dairying is backed up by all the science as Russel stated (and you objected to) and bloody OBVIOUS. When did your kids last swim in a river?

  5. Gerrit says “Private tunnel and all. No tax payers outlay.

    Win win all round.”

    That depends. In the tunnel proposal I saw, you couldn’t drive through the tunnel – you could only go in the tunnel owners bus.

    So it may be that one company effectively takes monopoly control and of almost all Milford Sound tourism.

    This is certainly not a win win. There are lots of losers, so there are significant pros and cons to the scheme.

    Insider – Cardno is merely working for the people that pay her to represent them – what’s she supposed to do? – gleefully sell them down the river?

  6. photonz1 thank you. A web address would be helpful. I don’t want to be wading through the Otago council website to find this data you claim is there.

  7. Fin – sorry, I missed that question. Gotta rush off and do a school pickup, but have a look at number of sites passing water quality tests on the Otago site.

    It’s gone up from memeory from about 74% of sites five years ago to I think 84% of sites today.

    So there’s been a gradual increase in rivers that are clean.

  8. So more of a “As long as we’re ok, let the others starve” attitude?

    Are you completely ignorant of the problems of lifeboat ethics?


  9. Photon, you were asked at 9.54 to back up some of your claims? Forgive me if I’ve missed it but I can’t see your evidence. I had a look at the Otago council site, and it seemed to not support your claims.
    “Executive summary
    Water quality in the lower Pomahaka catchment has been deteriorating for a number of years, while land use has rapidly intensified. The catchment is characterised by poor draining pallic soils, which has resulted in tile and mole drainage being installed to improve grazing land use. However, one of the main attributable factors to the deterioration in water quality is the management practises employed on this tile and
    mole drainage network”
    “The results show that all the rivers monitored are in reasonable ecological health. However, the situation could deteriorate unless stock are excluded from water courses, or if farming becomes more intensified.”

  10. @Robert

    Cardno is not opposing this for any reason but pure patch protection and using a whole range of other hot issues to try and bolster her chauvanism. She is a local politician and does not want any competition for Te Anau from an alternative route that doesn’t pass through her area. That is a very good reason to oppose her as she is demonstrating politics at its pettiest.

  11. BJ says ” I am NOT however, going to accept damage to our environment in order to feed foreign overpopulation no matter how many pieces of silver cross palms.”

    So more of a “As long as we’re ok, let the others starve” attitude?

    That’s a bit like “we don’t want to risk drilling here – someone else should take all our risk at their place for our oil, so we don’t have to” attitude.

    There’s a disconnect with many Green issues.

    Greens say we should be responsible for recycling our own car batteries instead of passing the risk for our toxic waste to some other country.

    But when it comes to oil drilling Greens take the exact opposite line – that we should pass our risk to someone else – anyone else – we don’t care.

  12. I’m not familiar with the Opihi river but from looking over it in google earth I’d say the most striking thing is the lack of trees. It is not suprising that the water has degraded when it has changed from what would have been mainly tree-shaded – at least above the lower braided parts – to a fully sun-exposed waterway. I talked to a freshwater biologist about the Hutt river a while ago and he acknowledged that you don’t get cyanobacterial blooms in the (few) remaining tree shaded sections – less light, lower water temperatures. Flushing has short term value for cyanobacterial control – it removes the large mats and turns over the sediments but if conditions are right the cyanobacterial mats start to reappear a few of weeks after flushing. Tree planting would also decrease the evaporative water loss from neighbouring fields.

  13. …and as usual Phil has a very very valid point. Most of the rest of the world manages without the sort of meat consumption that is common to the US and Kiwi and Australian culture…. and meat consumption is very inefficient USE of land and food. It is an efficient delivery system as it is a concentrated source, but it exacts a price from those who use it.

    McCartney’s “meatless Monday” notion would be a good idea for a starter, and rising prices for meat products based on the embodied emissions for creating those products ought to lead to meatless Wednesdays and Fridays in short order.

    This is a problem that the world is incapable of coping with even WITH all the resources in place. Wealthy countries eat grain-fed beef and the poorest starve for want of grain. Very fncking equitable, and not going to change no matter how much dammed dairy we deliver.

    A country is not a company. We have wider responsibilities.


  14. BJ – I was looking for a solution to future food security to counter climate change – and your solution is “don’t even try”.

    Not quite. I am perfectly content to extend our efforts to the maximum sustainable limit, and that includes a variety of measures that in general increase our production and ensure its continuity. I am NOT however, going to accept damage to our environment in order to feed foreign overpopulation no matter how many pieces of silver cross palms.

    That limit is a “Hard” limit. We appear to already violate it. The notion of making more money by selling more foodstuffs to the rest of the world is not really a very tenable position to be taking. If we want to do something to “make more money” we need to do something smarter.

    As for the food for the rest of the world… they are in the worst sort of trouble in the long run, and I do not think we can save them. This is not a matter of us not emitting CO2 and Methane, which is something everyone can do pretty much equally and has equal responsibility to limit. There are fewer countries that are actually capable of sustainable food self-sufficiency on current populations. That makes any over production we can manage valuable, but they are in general, already over-extended and we have to protect ourselves.


  15. I think the whole point of this is not to destroy our sources of freshwater that we all depend. To maintain a healthy supply of freshwater we may have to face the fact that a lot of the farming practices are destroying this supply. This is not in the interests of the farmer, let alone the wider community.

    From what I’ve seen we tend to sacrifice long term productivity for the quick short term fix, all the while in self denial or ignorance about the effect in the long term.

  16. you are all dancing on the heads of pins..

    pointing yr blood-stained fingers at everyone but yrslves…

    ..if it weren’t so sick/sad..

    ..and you weren’t causing so many animals to cry..

    ..it’d be fucken funny..


  17. because all of you who aren’t..

    are the ones who are fucking the country…

    ..if you weren’t buying it..

    ..the pollution wouldn’t be happening..

    ..it’s quite simple really…

    ..don’t blame yr pushers/suppliers…

    ..look to yrslves..

    ..are you having some cheese on toast as you rail against those perfidious farmers..?

    ..charred bits of dead animals for dinner..?

    ..hypocrisy..thy name is carnivorous-green…

    ..how can it not be..?


  18. janine says “No, the solution is to try to be more intelligent about providing food”

    Ah – so to counter things like increased drought from climate change, we could use our intelligence to genetically modify plants to withstand drought?

  19. No, the solution is to try to be more intelligent about providing food – increased intensive dairying with its attendant environmental issues is not the answer.

  20. BJ – I was looking for a solution to future food security to counter climate change – and your solution is “don’t even try”.

  21. Once again the Law of Unintended Consequences is about to raise its ugly head. We have managed to destroy our environment all in the name of progress and we continue to do so today. I doubt if we will ever learn.

  22. As to the Opuha dam cited by Federated farmers, this dam was not even built with the capacity to do what it might have to improve the river water flow – the other area Greens should focus on, is requiring that where dams are built, they are designed to enable an effort to be made for them to be beneficial in environment terms.

  23. Our responsibility, to our children and everyone else’s children, is to do the most we can SUSTAINABLY do. Destroying the environment in order to save lives in the short run will cost lives in the long run.

    There are 5+ million of us, nothing like 7 billion. We irrigate and build dams and all the rest within that limit of sustainability… not within the limit of profitability, nor with the motivation of making the most money we can get in an environment where that money is nothing less than a vile fraud perpetrated on the 99%.

  24. bjchip, Norman’s point was that the reason for the these dams was to enable more farming – more stock on land near rivers, we know the adverse consequences from this for local drinking water quality let alone keeping people from swimming in them.

    And will these dams even be used for other prurposes such as hydro?

    Greens should argue that farm management and or stock level pressures on water quality have to be dealt with first, lest these dams make the problem worse than it already is.

  25. Pretty nebulous reasons for not having a tunnel

    …the tunnel is inconsistent with the New Zealand Tourism Strategy objectives as it will reduce the duration of stay within New Zealand as well as the daily spend, and will limit visitor flows into the southern region,” she said.

    No proof at all that the tunnel will reduce staying times for tourist in NZL.

    Daily spend would be UP as the tourist are not stuck in a bus, but at the tourist spot spending money.

    Limit tourist flow in the South?

    When the tunnels speeds up access to other areas? No new tourist potential to be gardened? No potential for other areas to become part of the tourist trail?

    Shallow thinking on the Mayoress part I would think.

    Private tunnel and all. No tax payers outlay.

    Win win all round.

  26. Photonz

    We are not going to feed 7 billion people from New Zealand.

    We are not even going to try. We can only destroy New Zealand if we do, and if you consider what we are CURRENTLY doing wrong, that process is already underway using the ill thought price signals and subsidies that this government (and previous governments) have supported and accepted.


  27. BJ says “Dams can help both issues… ”

    The discussion I thought the Greens would be leading, would be security of food supply against climate change issues of droughts, floods, etc.

    Surely more irrigation is a must if the worlds 7 billion (and increasing)people are to be fed in the future?

  28. Russel

    Do not conflate the issue of Dams with the issue of “Farming Intensity” and pollution. The dams do not cause the pollution… the intensity of farming causes it. The pollution is an issue separate from the dams. Both may have the same parent ( profit motive ) but one can have a dam and not build a farm next to the waterway with its reduced flow.

    The relationship is not necessarily one-to-one either, a point Photonz clings to, but it IS more difficult and more expensive to defy the natural tendency of things to go to shit as that intensification occurs. We’ve had to fight for every fucking fence, and they’ll come down in time, without constant vigilance and maintenance.

    Someplace in the middle of this there is a balance. The quality of the water we have right now indicates that Russel has the right of it, but we need the hydropower and we need to reduce flood risks. Dams can help both issues…


  29. Dry summers killed the Opihi River back in the 70s. It suffered Phormidium outbreaks in years before the dam was built, but in dry summers the river would completely dry up and everything including the algae would be killed off.

    So if the water to the river was stopped completely, as happened naturally in the last few decades, the algae would be killed off, along with all other life.

    But there are minimum flow regulations that don’t allow what used to happen naturally, so the only other option is flushing, which doesn’t work so well.

    Fish and Game says of the Opihi River
    “This river supports good populations of both salmon and brown trout. Where previously salmon angling was restricted by regular mouth closure, with the new Opuha Dam operating to guarantee higher summer flows designed to maintain the mouth, it is to be hoped those days are over.”

  30. Fed Farmers cited the Opuha dam as one providing economic and environmental benefits

    Fisherman Ray Brokenshire fears it will be too late in five years to save the Opihi River from the effects of degradation. “A lot of us at our age remember what it was like. What we are trying to say is it’s in an awful state.”

    An Environment Canterbury (ECan) warning remains in place cautioning people to avoid the river at State Highway 1 because of the risk of exposure to toxins from phormidium, and some anglers will no longer fish in the river because they say the fish are smelly and inedible.

    Some South Canterbury anglers have blamed the growth in phormidium on a design feature of the Opuha Dam. Barry Stone told the Timaru Herald last week the algae increase was a result of how the dam company took its water, which was by a single-take and not a multiple-take system.

    Mr Brokenshire said the Opihi’s phormidium problem could be fixed if work was done to the dam. Unless action was taken now he feared it would be too late to solve the problem in five years.

    Phormidium is found in rivers throughout New Zealand. Under the right flow conditions it forms thick black mats that can cause reactions such as rashes or allergies in humans.

    ECan principal surface water quality officer Adrian Meredith said the regional council accepted the dam was linked to the phormidium increase. However, the lack of flushing flows was the problem.

    “The dam was never required to produce peak flows (as would naturally occur) when it was built and has limited capacity to generate flushing flows. Therefore the issue is the changed flow patterns in the Opuha and Opihi rivers due to the dam,” Dr Meredith said.


  31. Russel says “However, in January, the principle surface water quality officer at Environment Canterbury linked the Opuha Dam to an increase in toxic algae blooms in the Opihi River.”

    Russel doesn’t tell you the algal blooms also occured before the dam existed.

    And he dosn’t tell you that before the dam was built it was a “dead river” because in dry summers it would completely dry up and everything – aquatic plants, fish – even the algal blooms – died.

  32. And to add insult to injury, local councils (SDC) are right in the pocket of companies like Central Plains Water (CPW) where ratepayers money is GIVEN to CPW for their resource consent expenses.

    So this is what corruption does to the environment, we need to look at who is greasing the pocket of whom.

  33. This is going to degrade the quality of drinking water in rural/provincial areas – and one wonders how local councils will deal with the cost of mitigation or the area health boards the consequences for public health.

  34. I would like to see this data you’re talking about photonz1. If it is true, then how are you achieving it? I want to see the data first though.

  35. Everytime I hear these type of debates, it reminds me of the old song (1973) by John Hanlon : “Damn the Dam, said the fantail as he flew into the sky.. giving power to the people.. ALL THIS BEAUTY HERE MUST DIE !!”

    Water is becoming amongst our most precious resources.. I defy anyone to drink the water, straight from many of our rivers !

    The chase for the dollar still blinds so many to believe.. it will somehow all be OK. “wake-up people”


  36. Kerry – our region has a higher and higher percentage of water samples from it’s rivers and lakes passing quality tests, despite also having higher and higher numbers of cows.

    Russel falsely claims this is not possible.

    And without even knowing what region or water tests I’m talking about, you say this is bollocks – not because the info is wrong – but because you can’t swim in some lake over 1000km away.

  37. Russel says “National and Fed Farmers want to pretend we can have more cows and cleaner rivers. Unfortunately science shows we can’t.”


    Otago has more cows than we’ve ever had before, and the overall water quality of our rivers has been improving over the last few years.

    (as the council does more monitoring, farmers fence more, and put more effluent controls in place).

  38. Standards and follow-up action – I see that Nick Smith is now talking about improved reporting on water quality, but with no comment on standards or follow-through.

    In terms of the sewage treatment issue here, one of the problems we have is that the bar is set too low on the emission standards and there are elements like phosphates and ammonia that are not being addressed at all. Algal bloom arises not just from animal emissions or fecal coliforms, but from phosphates and other things in sewage and manures.

  39. And with the ever decreasing supply of freshwater, our sources of safe drinking water dwindle.

    Also the further down the line you get with pollution, the harder, and more expensive it will be to clean up.

    Our future health and economic wellbeing depends on the availability of freshwater.

    Good article Russel

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