Bruce Bisset: Denial has toxic flow on effect

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Funny thing about water: it can look good, smell good, taste good, but still contain a cocktail of nasties that'll kill or make you ill once they're down the hatch - and you may never know the cause.

Most food or drink quickly develops telltale signs to warn you if it's "off", but plain H2O just sparkles alluringly. Which I suppose is why people have trouble believing water could be hazardous to health.

Well, so it seems, since every year the reports of polluted water supplies grow more dire and the cases of water-borne disease more numerous, while those who could best effect positive change drag their feet and look to shift blame - yet continue to enjoy public support.

Yes, I'm talking government, councils and farmers (in the main) - three parts of the puzzle to protect and deliver clean water for stock, crop and human consumption. Each unwilling to do much that might upset the others; none particularly concerned urban-dwellers must accept what they're given, regardless.

Sure, that's overstating it; but when 31 per cent of towns with a population of 5000 or less - small towns surrounded by farmland, in other words - fail to meet the Ministry of Health's bacteriological standards for drinking water, it's hard not to be harsh.

Especially when everyone's so eager to explain it away. Hastings District Council quickly proclaimed all of Havelock North's failed tests for E coli anomalous, a result of the monitoring process rather than actual contamination.

Farmers have been equally staunch in denying land use impacts - from dairy intensification in particular - may contribute to town water pollution. Even the ministry uses language in its report to downplay the results.

But, regardless, standards exceedences are trending upward. An extra 0.4 per cent - 20,000 people (and 92,000 overall) - were drinking unsafe water in 2012 compared with 2010. And that's just the bacteriological result; a similar number of supplies failed on chemical contamination grounds.

Which fits with the galloping degradation of our waterways and aquifers. Two-thirds of all rivers, lakes and streams are now deemed unsafe to drink from, due to the spread of giardia and the like.

As many are affected by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous and silt from farming run-off, causing native plants and fish to die and gumming up rivers with algae and rocksnot.

With three-quarters of all freshwater used for agriculture and more demanded, surface and in-ground flows are depleted and cannot recover, putting town supplies at risk.

What are industry and authorities doing about this crisis? Fiddling.

Water storage schemes are needed, but not as drivers for further damage. Unfortunately, that's what Hawke's Bay Regional Council's Ruataniwha scheme promises, with vastly-increased nitrogen levels - to cater for intensification - in the Tukituki setting up a disaster when (not if) heavy rains carry retained phosphorous into the mix.

Farmers continue to prevaricate around fencing and riparian planting, replacing the "clean streams" accord - which dismally failed to meet its 2012 targets - with a new "sustainable" dairy accord: a toothless sop extending compliance timeframes out as far as 2030.

And government is chiming in with RMA changes making decisions on water management achievable through a "collaborative" process at regional level; superficially a positive for local democracy, but sure to be captured by vested interests - with extremely limited rights of appeal.

In short, no one - save some on the sidelines - is taking this water crisis seriously. Instead they're proceeding with measures that will only exacerbate it.

Meanwhile, National has downsized the climate change research budget to a miserly $4.5 million.

Perhaps rather than long white we're in cloud cuckoo land.

That's the right of it.

  • Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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