Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Thousands demand swimmable rivers

The Waikato river has been given a C+, designating it as an unhealthy river. Photo / File
The Waikato river has been given a C+, designating it as an unhealthy river. Photo / File

Just days after New Zealand's longest river failed a major health check, a grassroots freshwater campaign backed by the Tourism Export Council is set to present Parliament with a 12,000-strong petition demanding action.

The student-led Choose Clean Water group spent the summer touring the country's waterways and talking to communities who had watched their rivers and lakes become polluted and unswimmable.

Their campaign ultimately calls for the Government to set its recently-introduced "bottom line" standards higher, to ensure future generations will be able to one day swim at their favourite spots again.

Standards under the Government's National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, set in 2014, included a requirement for regional councils to manage freshwater bodies so people's health was safeguarded -- but the bottom line applied to only "wading" or boating.

Presently, around two thirds of monitored freshwater sites in the country remain unsafe for recreational contact.

The group's co-ordinator, Marnie Prickett, will tomorrow afternoon hand over a petition to MPs including Labour leader Andrew Little and water spokesperson David Parker and Greens water spokesperson Catherine Delahunty.

With her at the presentation would be a group that travelled as part of a cross-country hikoi from Turangi, among them iwi, school children, tourism industry representatives, environmental groups, politicians and university students.

Her group also planned to present 10,000 paper water drops, forming a river arriving at the steps of Parliament, symbolising the voices of those wjo signed the petition.

"The blue drops represent New Zealanders from all over the country who want strong protection in law for their local stream, river or lake but can't be in Wellington for the petition handover," Ms Prickett said.

She expected to later meet with Environment Minister Nick Smith and others.

"We have heard from the Minister for the Environment that current proposed legislations don't make it clear that polluted rivers and lakes must be improved," she said.

"As it stands, the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management claims to safeguard the health of people and communities but only as affected by secondary contact with fresh water."

"But rivers at this 'secondary contact' standard pose a risk of infection to people, even when they are just walking through them. This doesn't safeguard the health of our people; in fact it does the opposite. This policy puts our country and our people in danger."

She said Dr Smith had signalled he was open to strengthening the policy.

"Now is an historic moment for New Zealand in terms of how we manage freshwater and protect our rivers and lakes.

"It will have a huge effect on the lives of our young people and will be judged by future generations. We want to make sure our leaders do the right thing for all New Zealanders."

Co-incidentally, the event happens to come just a week after the first comprehensive assessments of the Waikato and Waipa rivers, carried out by NIWA scientists, found the overall standard of the river catchment was unhealthy, scoring a mark of just C+.

The campaign was launched around the same time the collaborative, high-level Land and Water Forum issued the Government a raft of recommendations, including that farmers should have to exclude nearly all livestock from rivers and streams by 2025.

The Cawthron Foundation, also recently founded and headed by a former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, has also made the issue one its priorities.

- NZ Herald

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