Over the weekend, the Green Party issued its plan for freshwater clean-up throughout New Zealand. You can download it here.

The plan – Cleaning up New Zealand’s rivers – is comprehensive and commensurate with the need. It rests on three pillars:

  1. Setting national standards for clean water.
  2. Introducing a fair charge for irrigated water, noting, for example, that the Auckland Council now charges more than a dollar per 1,000 litres for industrial use.
  3. Providing financial support for clean-up initiatives such as riparian planting and fencing, and municipal sewage treatment upgrades.

Here’s their view of the problem:

“Scientists tell us that the decline of our water quality has primarily been driven by the intensification of agriculture − using more water and fertiliser, and putting more animals on our farms.

“In the last 20 years, dairy cow numbers in New Zealand have increased from 2.4 million to almost 4.4 million, while 540,000 hectares of land have been converted to dairying. Each dairy cow produces as much faeces and urine as 14 humans. It is as if we have 60 million extra people living on our lowland pastures without sanitation. On top of this, New Zealand’s use of nitrogen fertiliser has increased 700 percent in the past two decades. Our soils can’t cope with this huge increase in faeces, urine, and fertiliser and, as a result, some of it is entering our waterways.

“In rivers and lakes, pollutants lead to algal growth that overwhelm the natural ecology of the river. In some cases, algal blooms have made rivers and lakes toxic to humans and animals. The key pollutants are phosphorus, from excess fertiliser and accelerated soil erosion, and nitrogen, from fertiliser and urine.

“The increase in diffuse pollution from agricultural intensification has overwhelmed the gains made by reductions in point source pollution from factories and sewerage plants. We need to deal with this diffuse pollution and reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint, particularly from dairying.”

Those who believe ‘farmer education’ by weak-kneed regional councils, like ours in Hawke’s Bay, will resolve New Zealand’s water pollution programs, will blanch at the Green Party’s plan — because it calls for firm national standards on water quality, minimum river flows, and intensive agriculture.

And precisely because the plan calls for binding national standards in these areas, you won’t find many of our supremely turf-conscious Regional Councillors applauding it.

Political history would suggest that the Green Party freshwater plan has zero chance of adoption as presented, no matter which party forms the next Government. The present Government has hinted at preparing a water quality standard, and has before it a languishing draft minimum flows standard. But clean water simply isn’t a high enough priority for the powers-that-be for their rule-making to have the teeth the Greens believe necessary.

Nevertheless, the Greens have performed a service by giving us a benchmark and spelling out what would be required if the nation actually wished to take the issue seriously.

More excerpts from their plan follow.

Tom Belford

Cleaning up New Zealand’s rivers …

“A 2001 study by the Ministry for the Environment said that if we maintain the status quo and freshwater quality continues to degrade, this could adversely affect our clean green image and result in a loss of $241-560 million per year to the dairy industry and a $530-$938 million loss per year to the tourism industry. This is a very conservative estimate.”

“A National Environmental Standard (NES) for Water Quality would set maximum levels for nitrogen, phosphorus, zinc and cadmium and set minimum levels for clarity, dissolved oxygen and measures of ecosystem health. Because there are currently no such limits in place, regional councils are allowing many of our rivers to choke with sediment and suffer algal blooms caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus.

“This NES, as well as the [Greens proposed] NES on flows and levels, will help promote consistency among regional councils by establishing agreed methods for measuring and reporting data, and consistent bottom lines for water quality and quantity. These standards will also create certainty, avoiding the need to litigate methods and limits in each region.”

“Rules governing intensive agriculture would limit the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, faeces, and sediment getting into our waterways, and ensure that land use matches land capability. The NES would be applied first to the largest operations, for example dairy herds bigger than 1000 cows, before being rolled out to smaller operators.

“The NES would set standard limits on stocking rates and fertiliser application rates for different soil types and land use. We need limits because different soil types and vegetation cannot process the effluent from too much stock or too much fertiliser. The NES would also provide clear direction on best management practices for irrigation and effluent disposal.”

“We would require large commercial water users to pay a price for their water takes. Big irrigators have no commercial incentive to use water efficiently because they get it for free. If they waste water, their only cost is the extra electricity used to pump it.

One option is to put a charge of $0.10 per 1,000 litres of water for irrigation, which would generate revenue up to $370-570million per year. This would not include water used for stock. Auckland Council, already charge more than a dollar per 1,000 litres for industrial use.”

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