Why we need a Water Action Initiative

Clean waterways are vital to help maintain New Zealand's "clean–green image" in the World. A clean and green environment is a critical part of our two most important export earning sectors of Agriculture and Tourism. 

Human beings are having a massive impact on the freshwater environment both in terms of extracting the water we use and the pollution we allow to enter our lakes and rivers. New Zealand–Aotearoa's 'clean green' image is under threat. 

Human beings cannot survive without access to clean water and water is an integral and essential part of the natural world that surrounds us. In New Zealand–Aotearoa, our freshwater environment – lakes, rivers and wetlands – is critical for biological diversity, is an important part of our cultural and natural heritage and is widely used for leisure, electricity generation, agricultural and domestic water supply. 

Analysis of New Zealand's national water quality monitoring network data reveals significant declines in almost all measured water quality parameters over the last 20 years.[1] A 2004 study of more than 300 lowland waterways revealed that 96% of them in pastoral catchments and all in urban catchments failed the pathogen standard for contact recreation. More than eighty per cent of the sites in pasture catchments exceeded guideline levels for phosphorous and nitrogen.[2]43% per cent of monitored lakes in New Zealand are now classed as polluted[3] and groundwater nitrate levels are rising as well with 39 per cent of monitored sites nationally showing increases.[4] 

Human health is also directly impacted with an estimated 18,000 – 34,000 people annually contracting waterborne diseases.[5] New Zealand–Aotearoa's commitment to "maintain ecosystem integrity"[6] has clearly not been met when it comes to the freshwater environment. Alongside pollution data, perhaps the starkest evidence of the decline in freshwater ecosystem integrity is the increasing number of threatened freshwater fish species. More than sixty per cent of New Zealand's native freshwater fish as well as theONLY freshwater crayfish and mussel species are now listed as threatened with extinction.[7]

These native fish communities are effectively the 'canaries in the coalmine' of freshwater ecosystems and their decline reveals failures to protect freshwater ecosystems over the last 20 years.[8&9] The declines in fish communities reflecting poor ecosystem health are most obvious at freshwater sites in pasture catchments. These declines in the health of freshwaters are for the most part related to agricultural impacts; excess sediment, phosphorous and nitrogen as well as faecal pathogens.[10] The major driver of the deterioration in the health of New Zealand's lakes, groundwater, rivers and streams is largelyunregulated agriculture expansion and intensification, mainly in the dairy sector.[11] 

Put simply, more cows have meant more nutrient and pathogen pollution of waterways. Across the whole country, the number of dairy cows increased by over two million between 1992 and 2011 – an 86 percent expansion. During the same period, average dairy herd size in New Zealand more than doubled from 169 to 386. [12] 

Looking at a specific area, between 1990 and 2002 the number of cows in the Waikato River catchment increased by 37% per cent and over that period nitrogen levels[13] in the river increased by 40 percent and phosphorus by 25 percent.[14] The intensity of dairy farming has also increased with stocking rates reaching a peak in the year 2009/10, almost 20 per cent above 1990/91 levels. These stocking rates are achieved by increasing use of 'off–farm' feed supplements like palm kernel and fossil fuel derived nitrogenous fertiliser and imported phosphate. Imports of palm kernel have shot up from virtually zero to 14 million tonnes per year in the space of the past 10 years, and the use of nitrogen fertiliser in New Zealand, according to the Ministry for the Environment, 'has increased by about 10 times since 1985 and doubled since the mid–1990s.'[15] 

To date there has not been a charge or even any attempt to internalise the costs of the pollution of freshwater in New Zealand. The only cost for 'out of pipe' (point source) polluters is a one–off 'consent fee' which is essentially an administration charge required by Regional Councils. The problem though is that for freshwaters the biggest pollution source in New Zealand does not come out of a pipe, it is diffuse and this pollution is not controlled at all. 

The only exception to this has been in the Lake Taupo catchment were dairy farms make up only 18 per cent of the catchment but contribute 90 per cent of the nitrogen load to the lake. Recently, in order to protect the lake water quality, farm intensification has been reduced by means of a cap on nitrogen fertiliser. 

The Government's response to the issues set out above has been to draw up a National Policy Statement (NPS) on freshwater to influence local and regional council decision–making. While the freshwater NPS is considered by many to be a modest step forward it is also too weak to address the problem.[16] There is also currently a voluntary scheme in operation – the Clean Streams Accord – and although this scheme has made some progress in areas such as farm nutrient budgeting, it lacks robust monitoring and enforcement so is not likely to deliver a significant reduction in pollution. 

Ultimately, without significant further action from both central and local government, the future prospects for freshwater health in New Zealand look bleak. Limits need to be set on how much pollution our rivers can handle and local, regional and national policies set in place so that these limits are not exceeded. 

A precedent for reducing pollution has now been set by the 'cap and trade' scheme limiting nutrient use to protect Lake Taupo. Thus, a template is now available for that process to be adopted nationally. Another potentially positive change is the agreements made to protect and improve the health of the Waikato River resulting from a claim over the river taken to the Waitangi Tribunal by Tainui–Raupatu. Under this co–management agreement[17] Tainui–Raupatu's vision and strategy for cleaning up the Waikato River has been legislated, including the objective: "restoration of water quality within the Waikato River so that it is safe for people to swim in and take food from over its entire length." If steps are taken to deliver this objective and reduce pollution it could offer another example of a way forward. 

New Zealand faces an unprecedented freshwater crisis. The hands–off approach of successive New Zealand Governments over the last 20 years has led to a major overshoot of the carrying capacity of New Zealand's soils and water. There is a way out of the crisis but it requires full acknowledgement of the causes, setting limits on pollution and policies to ensure those limits are not exceeded.

Excerpted from: Joy, M., (2012, May). Water quality. Beyond Rio: New Zealand's environmental record since the original earth summit, 12 – 15. Retrieved 7 July 2012 fromhttp://www.wwf.org.nz/what_we_do/education/?9002/Beyond-rio 

For further in–depth reading about the threat posed to New Zealand–Aotearoa's freshwater, please refer to the embedded research papers – these links: Bibliography & Resources will assist. WAI NZ thanks Mike Joy (Director, Centre for Freshwater Ecosystem Management and Modeling, Massey University) et al for agreeing to the use of their work on this site. Their permission is granted for non–commercial purposes only and they retain copyright.




[1] Ballantine, D.J. & Davies–Colley, R.J. (2010, August). (2nd ed) Water quality trends at NRWQN sites for the period 1989–2007. Retrieved 7 July 2012 fromhttp://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/water/water-quality-trends-1989-2007 

[2] Larned, S.T. et al. (2004). Water quality on low-elevation streams and rivers of New Zealand recent state and trends in contrasting land cover classes. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 38:347 – 366. Retrieved 7 July 2012 from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00288330.2004.9517243 

[3] Verburg, P. et al. (2010). Lake water quality in New Zealand 2010: Status and trends. Retrieved 7 July 2012 from http://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/ser/lake-water-quality-in-nz-2010/index.html 

[4] Daughney, C.J. & Wall, M. (2007). Groundwater quality in New Zealand 2010: State and trends 1995 – 2006. GNS Science Consultancy Report 2007/23. 

[5]Environmental Science and Research Ltd. (2007). Estimation of the Burden of water–borne disease in New Zealand – preliminary report. Retrieved 7 July 2012 fromhttp://www.health.govt.nz/publication/estimation-burden-water-borne-disease-new-zealand-preliminary-report 

[6] United Nations Education Programme. (1992). Rio declaration on environment and development. Retrieved 7 July 2012 from http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=78&articleid=1163 

[7] Allibone, R., et al. (2010) Conservation status of New Zealand freshwater fish, 2009. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 44(4): 271–287. Available fromhttp://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00288330.2011.578280 

[8] Joy, M.K. (2009). Temporal and land–cover trends in freshwater fish communities in New Zealand rivers: An analysis of data from the New Zealand freshwater fish database 1970 – 2007. Retrieved 7 July 2012 from http://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/water/temporal-land-cover-freshwater-fish/index.html 

[9] Joy, M.K. & Death, R.G. (2004). Application of the index of biotic integrity methodology to New Zealand freshwater fish communities. Environmental Management, 34(3):415-428. Available from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15520898 

[10] NIWA. (2010). Water quality trends at NRWQN sites for the period 1989–2007. Retrieved 7 July 2012 from http://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/water/water-quality-trends-1989-2007/final-report-water-quality-trends-NRWQN.pdf 

[11] Baskaran, R., et al. (2009). Estimating values of environmental impacts of dairy farming in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research, 52: 377 – 389. Available fromhttp://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00288230909510520 

[12] DairyNZ. (2011). New Zealand dairy statistics 2010–11. Retrieved 7 July 2012 from http://www.lic.co.nz/lic_Publications.cfm 

[13] NIWA (2010) How clean are our rivers? Retrieved 7 July 2012 from http://www.niwa.co.nz/publications/wa/water-atmosphere-1-july-2010/how-clean-are-our-rivers 

[14] Ministry of Environment. (2007). Environmental New Zealand 2007: Nitrogen from fertilisers and manure. Retrieved 7 July 2012 from http://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/ser/enz07-dec07/ 

[15] Sinner, J. (2011). Implications of the National Policy Statement on freshwater management. Prepared for Fish & Game New Zealand. Cawthorn Report No. 1965, Retrieved 7 July 2012 from http://www.fishandgame.org.nz/sites/default/files/Cawthron_Report_on_NPS.pdf 

[16] Waikato–Tainui Raupatu Claims (Waikato River) Settlement Act 2010 No24 (as at 25 November 2010), Public Act. Retrieved 7 July 2012 fromhttp://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/2010/0024/latest/whole.htm