Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Green Party targets 10 waterways in 'swimmable rivers' campaign

Mikayla Bourne by a waterfall in Lucas Creek, one of the waterways targeted by the Green Party. Photo / Garry Brandon
Mikayla Bourne by a waterfall in Lucas Creek, one of the waterways targeted by the Green Party. Photo / Garry Brandon

The Green Party is returning to a familiar theme for its 2017 election campaign - cleaning up New Zealand's rivers and streams, partly by putting an immediate end to new dairy farm conversions.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei launched the environmental campaign "Swimmable Rivers" today at the party's AGM in Lincoln, Christchurch.

The party already has a policy of making all rivers in New Zealand clean enough to swim in, though it has not set a timeline or estimated the cost of such a measure.

The new campaign centres on improving water quality in 10 waterways around the country, including Lucas Creek in Auckland.

To reach the goal of "swimmable" rivers, the Greens would introduce a moratorium on new land conversions for dairy. The Greens would also put a price on commercial use of water and reinvest the income in water restoration projects.

"Our rivers don't need to continue their decline," Mrs Turei told the Green Party rank and file at the conference today. "That's why we need to change the Government".

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Mrs Turei said a "significant investment" would be required to improve all rivers to a swimming standard. The party would cost the policy at a later date, she said.

She said water quality was an issue of "enormous importance" to all New Zealanders, and the policy was not targeting any specific demographic.

Mike Glover, an artist from Christchurch, has been campaigning to clean up the Selwyn River since the 1990s.

"It's had consistently high faecal contamination for almost 20 years," he said.

"This year it's got a toxic algal bloom in it as well."

He was "sick of excuses for why it's not being fixed". The poor quality of the water had a "depressing" impact on the community, he said.

"It's our playground. It's where kids play. It's where adults fish. It's all those things."

The National-led Government has introduced bottom lines for freshwater quality, which require rivers to be clean enough to wade in - a threshold which the Greens says is too low.

Environment Minister Nick Smith says that it is not practical to improve all water quality to a "swimmable" standard.

The Government has also set deadlines for livestock to be fenced off from rivers and streams. In last week's Budget, it set aside $100 million for cleaning up waterways over 10 years - an amount which Mrs Turei said was not enough.

A policy to clean up New Zealand's rivers was at the heart of the Greens' 2011 election campaign, where it secured its largest-ever party vote.

The policy is popular with grassroots members, some of whom need reassuring that the party's broader focus on social and economic issues does not come at the expense of its original environmental base.

By putting the policy at the heart of its AGM, the party is also trying to distinguish itself from the Labour Party and underline its role as Parliament's main environmental advocate.

Dr Smith welcomed the Green Party's campaign, but pointed out that some of the clean-up was underway, in particular at the Manawatu and Waikato where more than $250 million had been invested in restoration efforts. He also rejected claims that National was primarily responsible for falling water quality.

"It is ill-informed for the Greens to blame the current Government for New Zealand's water quality issues when all the science shows these issues go back many decades," he said.

"Many of our rivers and lakes have nutrient run-off cycles of many decades and it will take a similar period for the limits National has put in the place, and the clean-ups, to deliver the required improvements in river quality."

Comment: Spring in party's step at possibilities ahead

: The Green Party's annual get-together in Christchurch offered little that was new or bold. In what is now a highly stage-managed event which the media are allowed only a peek into, both Green co-leaders' keynote speeches on the weekend covered familiar territory - cleaner rivers, warm, dry houses, a smart high-tech economy.

But there was something different: A palpable sense among Green members that the party could be an inch closer to Government after signing a deal with Labour to work together up until the election. The refrain from co-leaders James Shaw and Metiria Turei was "just five points" - a reference to the party vote gap that the two parties must make up to overtake National next year.

There are still huge obstacles to getting into power for the first time in 26 years. The Greens are up against a well-funded, still-popular National Party and a potentially uncooperative New Zealand First. Winston Peters' name was not uttered once at the AGM. For now, it appears, the party is focused on ensuring it does not have to rely on Peters and it dealing with the things it can control.

That includes shoring up its economic credibility, which remains the party's biggest barrier to turning "maybe" voters into real ones. In an arrangement with Business NZ, the Green co-leaders and finance spokespeople will visit boardrooms around the country over the next few weeks to spell out their alternative economic vision.

The newfound optimism within the Green ranks was most evident in the ecstatic response to Labour leader Andrew Little's speech on Saturday - the first appearance by a Labour leader at a Green AGM.

Green staff, uncertain of what their members' response would be, asked them to be considerate to Mr Little. They needn't have worried. Instead, Green members rose to cheer, stomped their feet, and hung on Little's every word. Later, as the Labour leader left the conference centre, and thinking he was out of sight of media and public, he pumped both fists in the air and shouted "Woohoo!".

For now at least, the Opposition has a spring in their step which has been absent for some time.

- NZ Herald

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