I don’t want to swim in the river anyway…

*This formed part of my show on ‘Water’ – you can listen to the podcast here.**

I spent my childhood summers swimming in the Mataura river.  I lived in Wyndham, a painfully small hick town where all we had for entertainment was that river.  Even at a young age, it would be normal to spend your whole day there.  While I have heaps of good memories about hanging out there and learning to swim – something always stuck with me, though it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood it…  the stench. Did you know you could smell water while being underwater? Wyndham is downstream from Mataura which at that time had the Papermill and Meat works… utilising it’s position on the river banks to pump it’s discharge.  By the time the water got to us, it was rank.  But strangely enough we didn’t get sick – I’m not sure if it’s because Southland kids are tough or if it just didn’t have bacteria like E-coli we hear so much about now.  Back in those days Southlander’s were sheep farmers – dairy conversion happened in the 90s – this will have impacted on the water quality in replace of more stringent controls on what the factories did.  I wish this intro could have been about how clean the water used to be… I guess my generation wasn’t that lucky either.


My family checking out the views around Pukete Pa, on the Waikato River.

That’s one of the reasons I went to the public meeting on swimmable rivers, hosted by the Green party.  Before we go further – no this is not about campaigning for the Green party – if National or Labour organised a meeting on swimmable rivers I’d go to that… but it’s obviously not going to happen, according to our current government there is no problem.  I believe it’s important to leave the planet for our kids if not better – at least no worse than we inherit it.  We’re currently failing them.

About 50 people turned up – which is pretty good considering it was a chilly Tuesday night.  Heading the meeting was Catherine Delahunty who James Shaw described as a “Warrior” and she is.  She has lead a public meeting for 10 of the most compromised rivers in New Zealand – she is a passionate advocate for protecting the wairua of the river.  Before I share some of main technical challenges with our water quality – I just wanted to remind you that this isn’t necessarily about swimming off Wellington Beach or Swarbrick landing… it’s about protecting our freshwater sources.  In the three elections that the Greens have campaigned for swimmable rivers – this election has had an unprecedented amount of support for that policy, partly because the Havelock North contamination reminded so many of us that we are NOT guaranteed clean water supply.  We have to look after what we have.

There were three speakers for the evening; who have dedicated their time and energy to speaking up against polluters. collaborating to improve policy and educating industry and the public on what our threats are so we can work together to address them. Contrary to popular belief this is NOT anti-farmer, it’s anti-bad practice.  Once we know more – we should do more and science is unrefutable… or is it?… we’ll come back to that later.

There are four main threats to water quality.  1.  Nitrogen levels. 2. Phosphorus levels.  3. Germs/bacteria, and 4. Sediment.  These were outlined in more depth and formed the base for the Healthy Rivers Wai-Ora plan (The Waikato Regional Council is currently collating submissions on this).  No one believes that the “80 year plan” in it’s current form goes far enough, far enough.  The focus on the night was our dairy practice – because that is the biggest contributor to pollution in our river (but not the only one, point source discharge and what us city dwellers puts down the sink and into our soil also contributes).  Fencing, is obvious and a part of the solution; riparian planting and planting native bush in general helps to counter run off.  A pollution levy (which could cost the ratepayers about $7.50 per year) to support good change.  No more dairy conversions (this is a big one).  At the moment we have 9 million cattle, that is the equivalent of 126 million people … without a toilet or sewerage system.  It’s undeniable that we need to decrease our cow numbers – but ultimately what does this mean for farmers?  Have you heard of the sentiment quality over quantity?  We need to shift from a growth focussed model (thanks to Fonterra) and focus on added and higher value output.  This can be done and there are heaps of inspirational farmers to prove this.  We need to make sure the land consented for dairy is actually suitable for it.  This comes down to our Regional Council doing it’s job.  We also need to change how we view our natural resources.  A controversial “Scientist” Jacqueline Rowarth has claimed our river is amongst one of the cleanest in the world and seems to think that if the river goes out to sea it is wasted – well it doesn’t work like that… We have to allow  nature to do what it wants to do and work with it.  Which brings me to science.  It can be confusing – but doesn’t have to be.  Our current government changed the acceptable levels of E-Coli in the water to make it look like the rivers were more swimmable… on paper yes – in practice… obviously no.  Can Scientists stand up and call the government out on this?  Well, only with a great deal of difficulty and guess what – it all comes down to money.  It depends if they can afford to have their funding cut.  This happens.  It happened to Mike Joy who is a fantastic advocate and happened to one of the speakers Dr Alison Dewes who agreed it was a real fear.

So… I know you’re all asking what can I do?  Well, I think it comes to a few easy things.

  1.  Help your community restoration planting activities.
  2.  Inform yourself to have an overview on environmental policies.
  3.  Sign the petition for swimmable rivers (whether you vote Greens or not, this is about sending a message that we want more for our river).

We have fabulous advocates in government; follow them – share their work, party politics aside.  And please, support our farmers.  This is not us and them, we have to support the farmers who the majority want to do better – don’t denigrate and put it all on them.  They deserve it.

We have to remember that “nature can heal itself if we let her”.




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