Reaction to Greens Clean rivers policy | The Jackal

19 Jul 2014

Reaction to Greens Clean rivers policy

The Green party has managed to gain a fair amount of traction in the media with the announcement of their Clean rivers policy (PDF), which looks set to be a clear winner compared to other party policy on water quality management.

Unfortunately the ideological divide between those for and against cleaning up New Zealand's waterways is enormous with very little common ground between the two opposing teams. It's little wonder then that the articles about the issue are at polar opposites as well.

Last Sunday, the Green party website reported:

Green Party launches key election priority, rivers clean enough for swimming

The key policy points in the Green Party's plan for clean rivers are:

1. Establish a protected rivers network

The Green Party will establish a protected rivers network to permanently safeguard our most precious rivers similar to the permanent protection given to national parks. The protected rivers network will stop the destruction of rivers from irrigation, dams and pollution, while retaining the full right of all New Zealanders to use the rivers for food gathering and recreation. Iwi and hapu will be involved in the protection plan process at each step, in recognition of their kaitiakitanga and rangatiratanga.

2. Set robust standards that ensure rivers are clean enough for swimming

The Green Party will overhaul and strengthen National's weak National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, implement a strong National Environmental Standard for water quality and implement a National Environmental Standard for water flows in rivers, all of which will be geared to make our rivers clean and healthy enough for swimming.

3. Keep our wild rivers wild by not building any new dams on them

"All of our rivers and lakes should be clean enough to swim in," said Green Party Co-leader Dr Russel Norman.

"The Green Party has a vision for New Zealand where families can head down to their local swimming hole or beach and jump right in the water without worrying about getting sick. That is why the Green Party's top environmental election priority is to make New Zealand rivers and beaches clean enough for swimming.

Although the Green's are definitely selling it with a large amount of the feel good factor, I cannot really fault this policy. In fact if the government were interested in doing the right thing, they would likely implement a similar policy to the one the Green's are proposing.

The only other option to ensuring people don't get sick from swimming in polluted waterways would be to erect thousands of 'No Swimming' signs throughout New Zealand. If National were honest they would also put a disclaimer saying 'because of farm run-off' on the signs as well.

Sadly many on the right wing of the political spectrum have a hard time even acknowledging the problem exists. Invariably their response to the Greens' Clean rivers policy has been anything but honest.

A good example of this was National MP Amy Adams' angry response that was full of inaccuracies:

Greens continue to twist facts in pursuit of their anti-jobs agenda

Environment Minister Amy Adams says the Greens announcement today is just the latest step in their anti-jobs, anti-growth, stop everything manifesto.

I'm going to stop Amy Adams right there. The Greens' policy is clearly not anti-jobs. In fact two of the requirements to cleaning up our waterways are very labour intensive. Riparian planting and fencing off waterways to an adequate degree would employ many thousands of people, which makes Amy Adams' claim that the Clean rivers policy is anti-jobs entirely wrong!

The only real question is who will pay for such endeavours. My first instinct is to say the farmers should pay. However many farms are struggling because of debt. Being that they are such an integral part of our economy, the last thing we want is for farms to have to close because of prohibitive legislation. When a farm cannot afford to undertake to riparian plant and fence off waterways a policy incentive needs to be devised to pass the cost onto the banks.

The other issue here is just how intensive should farming be allowed to get? I would personally say that we're at saturation point already and no new stock should be added. It could be that some farms will need to sell a few cows when they can no longer graze next to waterways with a subsequent loss of farmhands, but this will be very insignificant compared to the overall employment gains attained.

“Improving the quality of our freshwater is important to us all but the Greens approach is costly and impractical.  Approaching improvement through blanket bans and requirements for every drainage ditch across New Zealand to be maintained at a swimming pool standard just shows that the Greens have once again confirmed they are the anti-growth Party, by pursuing polices that would hurt households and damage the creation of new jobs across regional New Zealand for little real gain,” Ms Adams says.

I'm going to stop Amy Adam's again. The Greens aren't proposing that every drainage ditch is maintained at swimming pool standards. Clearly they aren't saying that chlorine should be added for one thing. The policy is concerned with cleaning up our waterways, not drainage ditches that are required for a farm to be able to mitigate farm run-off. The National government needs to stop thinking that the rivers are drainage ditches; which is basically what Amy Adam's is doing.

“The Greens need to explain where they will find the billions of dollars of costs and lost revenue it could take to make every single centimetre of New Zealand’s 425,000 kilometres of rivers and streams suitable for swimming. They clearly haven't thought through the consequences.  Once more we see that they are happy to spend the taxes generated by productive New Zealand but they take every opportunity to impose more costs on households and the businesses who are at the heart of our economy.

It would be good if the Green's did provide a budget for the Clean rivers policy. However one area where they've already explained where additional money will come from is by adding value to dairy products. New Zealand is simply too far away from many of our markets to be shipping bulk items all the time. Diversifying the product line will not only put us in a better position to compete, it will ensure the dairy industry sees growth in a more competitive market.

This isn't just about making money though; it’s also about protecting the assets we already have in New Zealand. Along with our degrading water quality, unfortunately our tourism sector has seen some decline in recent years. Ensuring our clean and green 100% pure image is protected will require more than just lip service from the current government Minister's.

“The Government’s approach to raising freshwater standards is much more pragmatic. Our clear, robust national standards for rivers and lakes will make a significant improvement to the way freshwater is managed.

Actually the government's national standards will do little to nothing to ensure cleaner waterways. They amount to nothing really changing with the standards only requiring that rivers have to be clean enough for wading or boating. That's not the New Zealand we should be aspiring to become again.

“Rather than stopping water use, National’s plan is about ensuring it is used responsibly in a way that provides for the needs of our people now, and into the future.”

Oh dear! Amy Adam’s provides a whopping lie to finish her inaccurate and rather deluded article off with. Clearly the Green's are proposing to "stop all water use". It's difficult to see these two sides meeting on common ground being that National is making all sorts of false claims.

Despite the so-called Environment Minister's manic attack on the Green's, many right wing blogs have chosen not to back up Amy Adams' assertions. But what is perhaps even more telling is that only a week earlier, the often right wing Gareth Morgan had utterly slammed National's pathetic water quality policy, writing:

National Minister Muddying the Waters

The Government’s recently announced approach to fresh water is indeed a step forward and Ministers are to be congratulated for that. But don’t be fooled by Environment Minister Amy Adam’s effusion – we still don’t have a water management policy that will stop New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and estuaries deteriorating further, and we certainly don’t have a policy that will deliver swimmable water.

It's well worth reading the rest of Morgan's analysis to see exactly why the government's "plan" to improve water quality will do nothing of the sort.

To give this post some balance, here's another negative response by Irrigation New Zealand to the Greens' Clean rivers policy announcement.

On Sunday, One News reported:

Greens' water policy "unrealistic, prohibitively expensive"

The policy was unveiled next to the Waikato river which was churned full of muddy water as a result of heavy rain.

The party says its three point policy - to be rolled out over the course of their election campaign - would see protection plans put in place for rivers, water quality improved and the construction of any new dams stopped.

But Irrigation New Zealand (IRZ) does not agree that dams and irrigation destroy rivers or add to pollution if they are designed and constructed properly.

"The reality is that New Zealand needs large scale water storage. This is essential for town and city drinking water supplies, as well as to produce fresh food," says Andrew Curtis, chief executive of INZ.

"Without water storage we would have to explore other expensive options to cope with future population growth. These might include implementing intense food price hikes; importing foreign fresh produce and building desalination plants.

"The reality is that it is unrealistic and prohibitively expensive to have swimmable rivers everywhere - particularly in towns and cities where water quality is by far the worst," Mr Curtis said.

The problem for Irrigation New Zealand is that most irrigation systems aren't designed properly and that's why there is such a large amount of run-off into waterways. There is no doubt that the systems farmer's employ can be improved greatly.

One News also reported on a Breakfast program interview with Russel Norman:

Russel Norman: It's difficult to know water policy cost

When asked multiple times on TV ONE's Breakfast programme today about how much the party's plan will cost and where the money will come from to fund it, Green Party co-leader Russel Norman would not say.


When told that the party would have to crunch the figures eventually, Mr Norman said: "It's very difficult for the Government to estimate the cost because it's a very large issue, likewise it's difficult for us. We don't have the resources the Government has to estimate."

The problem here for the Green's is that pretty much any costing will be attacked as unaffordable. To provide an estimate now would simply give the government and those who want to keep the status quo ammunition to say that cleaning up our waterways is unaffordable and therefore unachievable.

However one would need to factor in the lost revenue from other industry that relies on clean water. That's where the Greens' policy wins hands down on the economic front, because with both sides of the ledger being accounted for keeping our water polluted just doesn't stack up.

On Monday, the Irrigation New Zealand press release was also reported by Scoop:

Green’s Water Policy Unrealistic

INZ agrees with the Green’s proposed collaborative approach to setting water policy, but INZ says that New Zealand must realise the complexity of its water issues.

“The government’s NPS is actually one of the toughest pieces of environmental legislation anywhere in the developed world and people need to understand the legislation in detail,” says Mr Curtis.

“The NPS policy states that river water quality in New Zealand cannot get worse and it provides a minimum level for rivers in a poor state to reach.

“The reality is that it is unrealistic and prohibitively expensive to have swimmable rivers everywhere – particularly in towns and cities where water quality is by far the worst.”

However, these sentiments weren't shared by one of New Zealand's most respected scientists, Mike Joy, with the Manawatu Standard reporting:

Joy embraces Greens' water plans

Professor Mike Joy has welcomed the Green Party's plan to make all of New Zealand's rivers and lakes safe to swim in.

The party announced the move yesterday, calling it its No 1 environmental policy for the election campaign.

Joy, a freshwater ecologist at Massey University, called the approach "really sensible".

"I like the sound of it," he said. "They've obviously thought long and hard about it."

Joy has long been outspoken about the state of New Zealand's freshwater habitats and the approach politicians have taken to the issue. He said the Green Party's announcement went a long way beyond what the Government was promising through the recently approved national policy statement on freshwater.

Of course the farmers had to put their two cents in as well:

Federated Farmers environment spokesman Ian McKenzie said the one-size-fits-all approach the Greens had taken would be unable to be implemented nationally because of the cost, he said.

"This Green Party policy intent shows a lack of integrity. It cannot be implemented fairly without a huge cost to society and will likely only end up being implemented in rural areas instead of all waterways."

That's amusing, being that the Green's haven't yet provided any costing's for them to be attacked as being prohibitive. Obviously the policy will be unfair to those who are polluting more, which is exactly as it should be. McKenzie's other assumptions simply aren't worth responding to.

Also on Monday, No Right Turn reported:

Election 2014: A clear choice on clean rivers

National is already attacking the policy as "irresponsible", "costly", and "impractical". I'd say the same about theirs. Dirty rivers cost us money. There's the obvious threats to tourism and to the dairy industry itself, both of which are marketed on our national reputation as "100% pure". But beyond that, we're also paying directly in pollution subsidies and decontamination and health costs, and indirectly in forgone recreation and industrial opportunities. These are real costs, and they should not be ignored. But the only side of the balance sheet National sees is the one which benefits their donors and cronies in Federated Farmers. To them, environmental costs just don't exist.

Nobody seemed to be very interested in cleaning up our waterways on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Green MP Eugenie Sage reported on a new development:

Government drops recreational river reporting

The Environment Minister's answers to parliamentary questions from the Green Party have since confirmed the Government is dropping its annual reporting on how many monitored river swimming sites are safe for swimming. Last year 61 percent of monitored recreational sites on rivers were not clean enough to swim in.

"New Zealanders want clean rivers that they can swim in. National has thrown in the towel on ensuring rivers are clean and safe for swimming in. Now National is trying to cover up the state of our rivers by stopping these longstanding annual reports on the state of our rivers," Green Party water spokesperson Eugenie Sage said today.

"Abandoning annual reports on recreational water quality and replacing these with general water quality reports every three years is seeking to hide the facts about the continuing decline in the state of our rivers.

Also on Wednesday, the Otago Daily Times waded into the water quality debate:

It is an unashamedly emotive policy delivery, designed to appeal to the hearts and minds of New Zealanders who, for generations, have enjoyed a variety of water-related recreational pursuits.

While the policy clearly tugs at the heartstrings, the statistics are nonetheless concerning.

The figures Dr Norman quotes are from the Ministry for the Environment, which found last year 61% of monitored rivers were so polluted they were unsafe for swimming.

Its 2012 report showed 52% of sites were unsafe.

A water quality report at the end of last year by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright painted a bleak picture, particularly in Canterbury and Southland, with accumulated phosphorus and excess nitrogen in waterways as a result of land use changes from forestry to sheep farming then dairying.

Dr Wright at the time acknowledged the importance of the farming sector, but said New Zealand faced a classic ''economy versus environment dilemma''.

If you're interested in cleaning up our waterways, these are all great articles to read in full. However Murray Rodgers on behalf of the Coalition for Clean Water wrote the most comprehensive article, with Stuff reporting yesterday:

Greens' policy on waterways worthy

At last we have a politician advocating a sensible policy on our aspirations for water in New Zealand. Russel Norman, co-leader of the Green Party, has said that the Greens' policy is to clean up our waterways to the extent that all rivers and streams are swimmable.

The objections have begun to flow from the rural leadership and government ministers, bemoaning the high cost of such a policy.

The more pertinent issue is the cost awaiting us as a nation if we don't do it.

Their positions reflect their short- term view of the world and ignorance of the critical importance to New Zealand of widening our economic base.

The argument is not simply between growth or no growth in the rural sector. It is between undisciplined growth and sustainable growth. To continue to seek economic growth that is unsustainable is not only incredibly short-sighted and selfish, it is just plain stupid.

I have to agree with Murray Rodgers here. New Zealand must move towards a sustainable future for all our industries. To not do this is simply crazy!

We need a comprehensive financial strategy linked into the delivery of sustainability targets to ensure farmer behaviours are adjusted across the region to the extent needed - zone by zone, catchment by catchment, farm by farm.

We need to define a tougher penalty structure that is rigorously applied so that it is clear in the minds of reluctant compliers what the costs of non- compliance are. The gentle approach of education and persuasion is doing part of the job but it is far too slow and incomplete for what is needed.

Clearly the softly does it approach to farmers that continue to pollute waterways isn't working. In fact the majority of farmers recently polled didn't even think water quality was a concern at all in New Zealand. That just goes to show that their awareness and environmentally destructive practices must be improved through a harsher penalty system.

Associated with this is the question of whether a levy should be imposed on volume water use to help fund such transition costs as well as restoration of past damage. The Water Rights Trust (WRT) has highlighted the need for such a levy for many years and, again, the issue has been sidelined.

There's one solution to who exactly will pay for our waterways to be cleaned up. But the more pressing concern is that they don't become polluted in the first place. Only the Greens' policy initiative looks set to address the real pressing issues concerned with water management. That's another good reason you should give them your party vote at the upcoming September election.