Our freshwater fish, birds and insects are paying a high price for our ill-treatment of the rivers and lakes they live in.
By David Brooks.
New Zealand’s rainfall is twice the global average but our careless attitude to this bounty means freshwater species are disappearing and many lowland rivers are unsafe for swimming. Our freshwater animals are in at least as much danger as our native birds
but it has been a case of out of sight, out of mind for our 40 or so native fish species, even though 80 per cent are found nowhere else in the world.
Intensification of agriculture has been the cause of the worst damage but urban and industrial pollution have played a part in damaging our freshwater. Dams and badly
designed culverts have blocked the way for migratory species and huge areas of habitat have been lost through the draining of wetlands. Some introduced species compete for food, some eat the young of native animals and others damage their habitat.
Our endemic longfin eel, which has been known to live for up to a century, is in rapid decline because of commercial harvesting, pollution and the blocking of its migratory routes between the ocean and upper catchments of rivers. They need to return to the sea to undertake an extraordinary 5000km final journey to tropical seas near Tonga to breed and die.
Fishermen are prone to exaggeration, yet we know the truth of whitebaiters’ tales of past huge catches dwindling to meagre harvests in recent seasons. The prized whitebait
are juveniles of five native species – ïnanga, köaro and three types of kökopu.
Some of our most remarkable native birds need healthy rivers. The whio, or blue duck, lives in the upper catchments of fast-flowing rivers and the loss of habitat along with attacks from introduced predators has seen numbers of this beautiful endemic bird fall to about 2500.
Defending our unique wildlife, plants and landscapes is Forest & Bird’s focus, but there are other compelling reasons for clean, healthy water. In the past, we have taken for granted being able to swim or fish in our favourite rivers or lakes, but many lowland rivers are
now unsafe for swimming and we can no longer scoop up a handful of water and drink it without risking our health, says Forest & Bird Conservation Advocate Nicola Vallance.
“We love our rivers and lakes – they have a hold over us – but more and more of them are being denied to us because they aren’t safe,” she says. “We have to act now if
our children and grandchildren are going to enjoy them as the magical places we used to treasure.”
Clear blue lakes and rivers are also critical to our 100% Pure-branded tourism industry, which provides nearly 10 per cent of our gross domestic product and one in 10 jobs.
The clean, green image also underpins our agriculture- based exports.
But the intensification of agriculture – and the dairy industry boom especially – is undermining the clean, green image it benefits from. Agricultural intensification is leading
to too much water being removed from some rivers in areas such as Canterbury, pasture erosion and too many damaging nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus in particular
from fertilisers and animal waste – leaching back into our water bodies.
The pressure from farmers for more water in Canterbury to allow conversions from dryland pastoral farming to dairying prompted the government to take the draconian step of dismissing the democratically elected Environment Canterbury, the regional council responsible for ensuring water quality in the region. This “coup” against ECan
was interpreted by many as further opening the way for development interests at the expense of conservation, recreation and the community.
The flow of sediments into our rivers remains a problem due to runoff created by cow hooves causing pugging on intensively farmed land, erosion in cleared hill country
catchments and the harvesting of plantation forests. The growth of our population is putting more pressure on urban waterways because of inadequate sewerage and stormwater infrastructure.
Population and economic growth is also creating more demand for energy, and power companies want to dam some of our remaining wild rivers – such as the Mökihinui
on the West Coast – rather than looking for less damaging alternative energy sources or promoting energy efficiency.
The government-backed Land and Water Forum was asked by the government in 2009 to bring together 58 interested parties including iwi, conservation and recreation groups, farmers and industries to come to a consensus on how to better manage water. Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell was a trustee of the forum and a member of its small group, which did most of the detailed work in drawing up recommendations for the
report released in September last year.
“The forum’s report is an important step in trying to find an alternative to the confrontational way water has been managed up to now, which has often seen development
and conservation interests engaged in lengthy and expensive court action,” he says.
The Land and Water Forum’s report called for the establishment of clear limits and standards. It also recommended the government adopt – with four relatively minor changes – a National Policy Statement (NPS) on water earlier drawn up by a Board of Inquiry. The government’s revised version of the NPS on water was released in May, as well as announcements on funding for cleaning up historically contaminated waterways and for
developing irrigation and water storage.
Forest & Bird and other environmental groups criticised the government’s NPS for diluting some of the Board of Inquiry’s version, especially the key objective that aimed
to ensure that at a bare minimum water quality would be maintained in all our waterways.
The government has now asked the Land and Water Forum to continue work on areas such as setting water standards, and establishing criteria for allocating government funds for restoring damaged waterways and setting up new irrigation schemes.
“The lack of a clear focus in the National Policy Statement will make the job of establishing a new water management regime harder but it is still possible with goodwill from all sides that we can grasp this historic opportunity to stop the slide in our water quality,” Kevin
"If we can establish a system with clear limits and standards, which ensures the conservation and community interests are given their due weight, we can start to have
more confidence about the future for our water quality.”
There is an opportunity now for the government to respond to the public demand for better water quality and to ensure a future for our native freshwater fish and habitats.