Kerre McIvor
Kerre McIvor is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Kerre McIvor: Waterways report too little too late

Our freshwater rivers and streams are in dire straits. Photo / Alan Gibson
Our freshwater rivers and streams are in dire straits. Photo / Alan Gibson

A number of years ago, I went on a tour of the South Island with chef Al Brown.

Al was putting on cooking demonstrations for the rural organisation CRT and I was there introducing Al and keeping the banter going while he did the real work.

It was a wonderful way to spend an October.

We would arrive in a town - Ashburton or Blenheim or Invercargill - put on the show and the next morning load up the rental car and pootle off to the next town.

I generally did the driving while Al got on with the business of running his burgeoning empire.

We were in Canterbury one day, on a glorious spring morning, when Al cried out, "Stop the car!"

We were crossing a river and I pulled over past the bridge. Al leapt out. "Look," he exclaimed. "They're vanishing. One day there'll be nothing there! It's bloody criminal."

He was talking about the famous braided rivers, found only in the eastern South Island, mainly Marlborough and Canterbury.

Only a couple of other countries in the world share these unique waterways. They're very popular with fishermen, and Al, a keen fly fisherman, had been walking these rivers since he was old enough to hold a rod.

And he was right - they were nothing like the rivers I remembered from visiting my South Island relatives in my youth.

Progress is to blame. The filling of lakes behind hydro-electric dams and the explosion of dairy farms on the Canterbury Plains has put the waterways under threat.

Dairy farmers need massive amounts of water, so water from the rivers has been channelled off for electricity generation and irrigation.

After delivering a powerful soliloquy that really deserved more than an audience of one, we continued on to Oxford.

He was right, though. Our freshwater rivers and streams are in dire straits.

Most people who enjoy the rivers as their playgrounds have known this for some time but now it's official.

A damning report released by the Ministry for the Environment and the statistics department has found our rivers and lakes are indeed in a parlous state.

As you'd expect when the stats department is involved, there were a whole lot of numbers: levels of E coli are 22 times higher in urban areas and 10 times higher in pastoral areas than rivers in areas of native forest.

Seventy-two per cent of the 39 native fish species monitored are at risk of extinction. Nitrogen levels are worse at more than half of the rivers monitored.

And so on and so forth.

Good Dipton boy that he is, Prime Minister Bill English said we shouldn't have to sacrifice economic growth to improve waterways and hey, at least now there's a report so we know what's going on.

Anyone with a passing interest in our environment has known there was a problem long before the official report came out - even the Government.

Putting the cart before the horse, the Government announced its Clean Water package a few weeks ago, with the aim of making 90 per cent of our rivers and lakes swimmable by 2040.

The package included proposals to exclude stock from our waterways and to establish a $100 million Freshwater Improvement fund.

All very laudable. Let's just hope it's not too little, far too late.

• Kerre McIvor is on NewstalkZB, Monday to Friday, noon-4pm.

- Herald on Sunday

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