Fresh water

Although three quarters of this planet is covered in water, only 3% of that water is freshwater.

>> April 2017 Forest & Bird's NPS-FM Clean Water Consultation Submission (PDF)

This precious water source is used for drinking, farming, electricity, recreation and supports a myriad of aquatic creatures.

We cannot live without freshwater. There’s no question about it – in this crowded world this blue-rush will intensify in the coming years.

Already, our water resources are becoming increasingly stretched as our population grows and we look to ramp-up intensive farming.

Freshwater is our commons. We need to manage it sensibly.

Surveys show - New Zealanders want our freshwater to be drinkable, swimmable and to provide a healthy habitat for our unique wildlife.

And although we’re aware of some of the impacts of farming on our lowland rivers, most New Zealanders are unaware of the extent of the increasing damage to our water in the past 20 years.

Here’s a snapshot of the state of our freshwater.

 The situation

  • Run-off from dairy farms has severely impacted our rivers and lakes. In the past 20 years fertiliser use has increased 800%. This has raised the chemical load on our rivers so much it is threatening our fish life. NZ maintains a top ten position for nitrate levels amongst OECD countries. 
  • Half of our native fish species are listed as threatened. One of these endangered fish – the longfin eel – is still being commercially harvested.
  • Nearly half of monitored lakes in New Zealand are so polluted by nutrients they are now classed as ‘eutrophic’ which means that they contain more nutrients than they can cope with. Eutrophic lakes are typically green and murky, with higher amounts of nutrients and algae.
  • Most of our harbours are choked with sediment
  • Most of our lowland rivers don’t meet standards for bathing.
  • More than 90% of New Zealand’s wetlands have been drained to make way for farming and development, destroying precious habitat for native species.
  • Demand is rising for irrigation, particularly from our rapidly-expanding dairy industry. This can reduce river flows to a trickle – making most life in these rivers unsustainable. The 2006 OECD average for total weekly allocation of water used for irrigation is 43%. In contrast NZ's allocation is 77%. 
  • In the 2013 budget the government put aside $80 million to seed regional irrigation.  
  • Recently the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright put out a report that shows that in many areas, limits will need to be set on the conversion of beef and sheep farms to dairy farms.
  • Large hydro-dams have already been built on 15 of our rivers and their tributaries, displacing their freshwater inhabitants and disrupting the natural flow. Many more are being eyed up for future development.  The Hurunui, the Clarence, the Waitaha and the Kaituna are just some of our rivers that are under threat.
  • Around $500 million of taxpayer and ratepayer money is being used to clean up our freshwater lakes and rivers. Five of the restoration projects now underway will cost over $11 million:  Waikato & Waipa rivers $(220 million, projected cost), Lake Taupo ($81.5 million), Rotorua Lakes ($144 million), Manawatu ($30 million), Lake Ellesmere ($11 million).

Blue duck (whio) – an alpine freshwater dweller

Much of our rainwater and snow melt flows from our steep mountain ranges, creating swiftly-flowing rivers and streams. The blue duck or whio is one of only three species of duck in the world that lives among fast-flowing torrents – they navigate and feed among turbulent rapids with ease.  Habitat loss, reduced water quality, and hydro development has significantly reduced the clear, fast-flowing river habitat that blue ducks rely on.

Wrybill (ngutuparore) – a braided river dweller

The wrybill is named because its beak curves to the right – it is thought that this helps it search for food under riverbed stones.The wrybill and other rare native birds such as the black stilt and black-fronted tern nest on the shingle beds of the South Island’s braided rivers.Damming of rivers for hydro development and reduction of river flows for irrigation reduce the “braids” of the rivers, leaving the birds’ nests vulnerable to predators. Lower river flows and pollution also affect the birds’ food sources.

Australasian bittern (matuku) – a wetland dweller

Australasian bitterns are mottled brown with a cream throat, long legs and neck. They are related to herons, but are more thickset. Extremely shy, they hide among wetland raupō and reeds, often standing stretched upwards to merge with the reeds. They are so hard to spot that you are far more likely to hear their distinctive booming than see them. Destruction of wetland habitat threatens bitterns and other wetland birds, insects and freshwater fish.

Eels – river, lake and wetland dwellers

New Zealand shortfin and longfin eels live in lakes, rivers and wetlands around New Zealand but are in decline due to commercial fishing, damming of rivers, pollution and habitat loss. Longfin eels are long-lived – perhaps up to 100 years old – and travel far into the Pacific at the end of their lives to breed and die.Other native freshwater fish also face the same threats as eels and are also in decline.


What Forest & Bird is doing

We believe that crisp, clear, clean water is a birthright. We’re working to ensure our rivers are free-flowing and clean.

Below are some of activities we’re engaged in to achieve this –

  • Riparian planting – Plants lining streams and lakes can provide some protection from pollution from fertilisers and effluent, protect banks from erosion, provide shelter and egg laying habitat for fish, and keep the waters cool and shaded for its freshwater inhabitants. We’re involved in several projects to re-plant our waterways throughout the country.
  • Protecting Wetlands – Wetlands are often put down as mere bogs but they provide incredible habitat, drainage and nature’s (free!) water purifying system. Since European occupation, 90% of our wetlands have been drained. We’re working to ensure our remaining significant wetlands are protected under council rules  and those ecologically significant sites are guarded under international RAMSAR law.
  • Saving our Wild Rivers – We’re working to halt irrigation schemes on our last remaining wild rivers.
  • Life-line for Longfins – We’re part of a group of conservationists and academics concerned about the ongoing harvesting of our endangered longfin eel. Our long-fin is late to breed (some wait till they’re 100 years old), so any eel that is caught is one will not breed. There is no restriction on weight, so those prize-catches that are close to breeding age are often selected for harvest. We believe all commercial fishing should stop to allow this species to recover.
  • Save the MacKenzie Country – The Mackenzie country is russet brown for a reason – it is an arid, tussocky, dry-land that has evolved over millions of years. Large-scale watering of this leaky land is turning the landscape green for dairy farming and obliterating the unique tussock-lands that we hold dear. More