Take me to the river (but don’t drop me in the water)

Most Kiwi road trips involve stopping at rivers you can swim in.

Unfortunately, when you’re campaigning for clean rivers, it’s often the opposite. I spend a lot of my time pulling up beside stretches of water that you wouldn’t be paid to swim in.

Yesterday was one of those days. But let’s start with the positive.

First stop was the pristine, postcard-perfect Blue Springs in Putaruru, where over 60% of New Zealand’s bottled water comes from. Think households brands like Pump, Kiwi Blue and Kiwi Pure (New Zealanders spent a staggering $60.4 million on bottled water at petrol stations and supermarkets in 2012) but also more expensive, artisanal  varieties.


We market this water on New Zealand’s clean green brand. Problem is there’s a growing gap between that brand and the reality of the state of our waterways.

More on that in a moment, but first, let’s stop and check for trout…


While at Blue Spring, I filled a large plastic bottle with water. I’m pleased to report it looked exactly the same as water you’d buy at the supermarket – crystal clear and 100% drinkable. Which I suppose isn’t surprising, given it comes from the same place.


We then headed about 75kms down the Waihou River to Te Aroha. This is where things go very wrong with the water.

The Waihou River at Te Aroha is so degraded that the Waikato Regional Council labels the river unsatisfactory for swimming and the100% of tests in the last 5 years for nitrogen and phosphorous show unsatisfactory levels.

graphicWhy? In the Waihou/Piako catchment, 42,000 hectares of land was intensified between 2002 and 2008. This was mainly due to intensification of existing pastoral land, either by a change of land use (e.g. sheep to dairy) or intensification within a land use (e.g. intensification of dairy).

The Waihou now receives over 1,500 tonnes of nitrogen per year and about 150 tonnes of phosphorous.

graphic 2

I went for a quick kayak with fishery biologist Bill Brownell, to see for myself what was happening on the water in and around Te Aroha.


It was a far cry from Blue Spring, I can tell you. I filled another bottle with water, and compared it with the earlier one….


Last stop Turua, close to the Firth of Thames. Things are even more dire there. Check out the contrast between the original Blue Spring water and the local water…


This election Kiwis have a real choice. A government that’s perfectly happy with the unswimmable river water you see in the bottle on the right. Or a Green Government that will ensure ensure all New Zealand rivers are safe enough to swim in and enjoy.

11 Comments Posted

  1. On top of the farm pollutants damaging rivers we are getting more severe weather events and the economic costs are escallating http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11320954

    I believe avoiding the costs of this in the economy and allowing more costs such as the Hauraki gulf damage means farming is banking the advantages of the damage into their land prices, especially with foreign buyers keeping them up, while other sectors of the economy pay the price.

    Responsible young farmers can’t correct matters by buying in, while the government does nothing just to get another trade deal. Who needs it. It is not a free market with unfair wealth differences.

  2. The national party has made our economy the basis of its claim to good government. It has done well… in the process of turning us into a third word exploited economic system, owning less and less of our own resources, and selling everything we can dig up, pump out or chop down to the highest bidders… who aren’t New Zealanders because we’ve got no system of taxation or limitation that prevents foreigners from bidding up our house prices, speculators from buying and flipping those houses up in price, and bankers from collecting the interest on the ever increasing mortgage debt that we are locked into.

    Yes, we are ever more desperate because of our “success” at transforming our economy along third world lines.

    So the need, because they have overseen this great simplification of the economy, for ever more foreign “investment” and foreign exchange credit from selling the milk products that SEEM so easy, is to intensify and increase the amount of that milk produced. Never mind that the price can go down for a myriad of reasons and will go up and down and carry the entire national economy with it as it does… leading us to feel insecure and unstable… because we have become so. Never mind that attempting to supply more milk than we can sustainably produce is going to damage our rivers , lakes, streams and land. That’s a worry for future generations.

    We’ve seen the “100,000,000” commitment of this government. As usual it is an arrangement to take more taxpayer money and pay it out into private hands. Much like their housing solution. These are WRONG answers. They are the only ones Key et.al. can imagine, because they believe that the market is the only thing and that New Zealand is to be run as a corporation.

    My personal opinion of Key is unprintable and savage. He is without a doubt one of the worst possible prime ministers that any country could have. However, it is the press that is the worst of all, for it fails to bring up the issues that would make it clear how Key & Company are dragging the nation down. Key doesn’t have to debate the Greens, he can say whatever he likes in debates that HAVE NO GREEN REPRESENTATIVE TO ANSWER OR ASK HIM HARD QUESTIONS.

    That is just wrong.

  3. Insider may note that no advertising is shown on the last two bottles Russel is holding at Turua.

    On the other hand any “advertising” of river pollution is a good thing for raising NZders awareness.

    Our waterways have been severely damaged by agriculture and industry who never advertise the damage they do..

    The latest fad of irrigating for even more dairy is short term madness.

    Irrigation brings with it extensive soil damage in the long term and in many areas salination of the land leading to incipient toxicity. Particularly where private enterprise sells the water. If irrigation is used then there must be drainage systems to handle the excess irrigation necessary to desalinate. This does not happen in irrigation schemes which are largely based on short term gains. All of this damages the soil.

    The evolution of a microbiotic system in a soil happens in a delicate balance of environmental factors peculiar to the climate and seasonal rainfall. Agriculture should work within those conditions with practices in harmony with the soil. Altering the soil structure with fertilisers or entirely different “rainfall” patterns spells long term disaster.
    Deserts have been created with irrigation in many old world civilisations.

    These polluted rivers Russel is advertising are just the tip of an iceberg.

  4. PS. The view that tidal rivers are always silty in these circumstances shows the way that we are conditioned to accept what is not normal. There are many silt deposits around the NZ coastline from humans more recent actions, a great example is Matarangi where old timers will tell of the local indignation when foresters didn’t think about harvest methods and marine life was smothered big time, and you in your short term wisdom see it as normal.

  5. For insiders information that part of the river is tidal and as it is so low lying the river backs up for 10s of kilometers. The fact that Russell was at the level he was to me indicates a low tide point so the river would be running fresh at that point. I would imagine this does not fudge any picture because this backing up would intensify the accumulation, probably why there is so much fine mud on the banks in that area as sediment would settle in the tidal process. It does not at all lessen the research tests on the quality at that point. There are scientists warning that whitebait will be a thing of the past in many rivers. What arrogant right have we to do this to the food chain for so many organisms. Would we crap in our own swimming pool.

  6. Hmmm interesting tide marks on the jetty behind you. Tides of that size only happen in the sea in NZ so you are likely holding a bottle of brine. No wonder it’s brown.
    anyone would think you had never been in an estuary or tidal river before. They are almost always silty due to tide action.

    how about some truth in advertising..

  7. Is the National Party talking about cleaning rivers or buying river banks. This takes the responsibility off the farmers and gives them a nest egg at the public expense. It is time they took responsibility for the mess, as should the academics pushing intensification.

  8. Unfortunately, the Nats $100M suggestion (plus another similar amount from regional councils) becomes another tax on the tax / rate payer. As to what effect it would have? The issue overlooked by the former, is that the nutrient is generally absorbed into the soil then leaches into the water table – which then flows into our waterways. Fencing off a strip of land will have no effect on this but will only stop cows directly crapping into our rivers.
    I would suggest that the $100M would be better spent perhaps reinstating the former farm advisory service to work with farmers to develop a holistic approach to nutrient run off and containment.

  9. Given yesterday’s announcement by the National Party of a $100,000,000 investment in water cleaning, I think you might want to retract the inference regarding them, as for the potential LGIM++ government! we have no platform of policy to look at to see what it’s stance might be: unless you are suggesting that enough people might vote green to put the party into a position to govern alone!

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