Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Scientists blast reform plan for waterways

Government's proposed limits provoke a raft of criticisms and scepticism about an 'out clause'.

Environment Minister Amy Adams. Photo / APN
Environment Minister Amy Adams. Photo / APN

A national body representing freshwater scientists has joined other experts in hitting out at shortcomings in new government reforms to improve the controversial state of our waterways.

Environment Minister Amy Adams this month revealed proposed national water standards as part of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.

Designed to help communities and local authorities set freshwater objectives for waterways, the draft objectives included "bottom-line" limits for pollutants such as nitrates, phosphates and levels of algae.

But the proposed limits, when the poor state of our fresh waterways has been under the spotlight internationally, have been criticised by some scientists for an absence of key health indicators in rivers and streams.

The Freshwater Sciences Society has described the limits for protecting ecosystem health in rivers and streams as "deficient" and noted there was nothing yet in place for wetlands or estuaries.

With rivers, there was concern that the bottom line for nutrients was set only at the toxicity limit for nitrogen, society president Professor David Hamilton said.

"Only one river in New Zealand violates the toxicity limit, yet both scientists and the community know that there are already serious issues from too many nutrients being lost from the landscape and causing progressive decline in river and estuarine health across the country."

Biological invertebrate health measures, a well-recognised metric of river and stream health that had been in use for years, were also absent.

Professor Jenny Webster-Brown, director of the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, said she was surprised the standards had left out limits for nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients in rivers to prevent nuisance algae growth.

She also noted no plan to limit what are known as trace toxic contaminants - heavy metals, arsenic and organic contaminants - for ecosystem health.

Associate Professor Russell Death, of Massey University, said the river limits also should have included the key indicators MCI, measuring biological invertebrate health, and IBI, gauging fish health.

There has also been much scepticism about a proposed exception, where the "economic benefits" of existing infrastructure could be weighed against the bottom-line standards.

Professor Hamilton said such cases had to be assessed carefully, and should not be used to promote short-term economic gains. "New Zealand is already paying a high price to address the legacies of past environmental decision-making and cannot afford trade-offs that risk our international credibility in environmental guardianship."

Massey ecologist Dr Mike Joy slammed the proposed exception as an "out clause". "It's a way of weakening provisions that might protect the environment."

A ministry spokesperson confirmed that in these "limited" and "nationally significant" cases, decisions would be made by the Cabinet, rather than councils.

The spokesperson said limits councils needed to set for nutrients would vary depending on local conditions.

A government report card released this year showed that of all river recreational spots measured for faecal pollution and microbial water quality, more than half were unsafe to swim in.

Red = Very Poor, Yellow = Poor, Green = Fair, Blue = Good, Purple = Very Good White = no data.
Source - Ministry of Environment

The above map shows Suitability for Recreation Grade(SGRG) at different sites.
Click on the marker to see the rating for Microbial Assessment and Sanitary Inspection categories.

For further information and to download the data set - http://www.mfe.govt.nz/environmental-reporting/fresh-water/suitability-for-swimming-indicator/suitability-swimming-indicator.html

Some of the locations of the sites are approximate.

- NZ Herald

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