What to do about the alarming state of New Zealand's lakes and rivers has predictably dominated the environment space in the run-up to this election.

Anger over our freshwater estate has reached boiling point as report after report has shown a pattern of ongoing degradation in many parts of the country - perhaps nowhere more so than amid the plains of Canterbury - with the dairy industry taking much of the heat.

Kiwis have become all too familiar with concepts like agricultural intensification, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, the risk of bacteria E. coli, and other factors like stormwater run-off, sediment and algal blooms.

Environment groups have called for a cow cull.

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Opposition parties have made rivers a rallying cry.

And increasingly, the ugly flipside to our clean green tourism brand is being noticed overseas.

"New Zealand: Polluted Paradise" is the title of a major documentary investigation now being broadcast by Al Jazeera, while major US newspaper The Wall Street Journal also recently highlighted how our two biggest industries, dairy and tourism, were now being placed at odds.

The Tourism Export Council, a lobby group, has joined more than a dozen other groups in pushing a proposed rescue plan.

How bad is the picture?

Some previous government monitoring reports have suggested up to two thirds of checked sites were unsafe for swimming.

A more recent stocktake, published by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand this year, found many waterways were now affected by harmful E. coli, and three-quarters of monitored native fish species are nearing extinction.

By 2008, the extent of wetlands was only 10 per cent of what it was before the arrival of humans and, in some areas, this has led to a loss of biodiversity and natural function.

But agriculture wasn't all to blame, with data showing some of the worst water quality could be attributed to urban pollution.

The Green Party would scrap subsidies for irrigation schemes. Photo / File
The Green Party would scrap subsidies for irrigation schemes. Photo / File

Levels of the harmful bacteria E.coli were 22 times higher in urban areas and nearly 10 times higher in pastoral rivers, compared with rivers in native forest areas.

The report also included dismal trends for two key nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus - that increase the risk of river-choking algal blooms and are often linked to agricultural intensification - worsening at more than half and a quarter of monitored river sites respectively.

And between 2013 and 2014, more than half of water allocated for consumptive use was for irrigation - and 65 per cent of that had been allocated to Canterbury.

As the election has neared, worry and anger over the quality of our freshwater estate has turned up new questions: who owns our water, and why don't we make those who use and pollute it pay?

CLEANING UP OUR WATERWAYS

The National-led Government goes into the election with a new National Policy Statement (NPS) on Freshwater Management it says confirms its target of 90 per cent of large rivers and lakes being swimmable by 2040.

Changes it has just folded into the overhauled NPS carried more demanding standards of water quality for swimming, new requirements for ensuring the ecological health of waterways, more explicit requirements for considering economic wellbeing within limits, tougher requirements for limiting nutrients and algae and the provision for Te Mana o te Wai arising from work with iwi freshwater leaders.

Te mana o te wai, which can be understood as "the quality and vitality of water", comes amid increasing recognition of Maori environmental values in environmental management, and the significance of fresh water to Maori.

"Swimmability" ratings - based on quality at least 80 per cent of time - include four statistical tests used for determining which rivers are excellent, good, fair, intermittent or poor, and clarifies the risk as less than 1, 2, 3 and 7 per cent respectively.

That goal sits upon regional councils being required to set regional targets and regularly report on achieving them, and 1000km of waterways to be improved to a higher grading each year until 2040.

Agriculture has been blamed for much of New Zealand's freshwater woes. Photo / File
Agriculture has been blamed for much of New Zealand's freshwater woes. Photo / File

Regional councils would have a new process to manage in-stream levels of nitrogen and phosphorus and nutrients would need to be limited to control algae growth.

The cost of meeting the new water quality improvements was estimated at $2 billion, falling upon farmers to fence off waterways and reticulate stock water, councils in improving their wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, and taxpayers.

The cost came on top of the $400m the Government has invested in freshwater cleanup projects.

National's next steps were to finalise details on national stock exclusion regulations: dairy cattle and pigs have been required to be fenced off since July.

But critics have been left unconvinced by these goals, and question how waterways can be cleaned up at the same time National is pushing an aggressive primary industry growth agenda and funneling up to $400m into irrigation schemes, which they argue will only drive further dairy intensification and pollution.

Under its 12-point freshwater policy, Labour says it would crack down harder on polluters, make all rivers and lakes swimmable "within a generation" and extend freshwater quality standards.

A new national policy statement would remove as a "permitted activity" any further increases in farming intensity - including more livestock, irrigation or fertiliser per hectare - and require rivers and lakes be clean enough for people to swim in during summer without getting sick.

The party would adopt freshwater quality standards that covered pathogens, dissolved oxygen, nutrients, periphyton and macroinvertebrate health, with bottom lines to reduce diffuse pollution of freshwater by set deadlines, and demand all intensively stocked land near waterways to be fenced off within five years.

The Greens would make amendments to current policy similarly requiring that all waterways be safe for swimming, but also banning new dairy farms and subsidies to irrigation schemes.

Gareth Morgan's The Opportunity Party (TOP) would place interim moratoriums until catchments have plans to improve water quality, ACT would sell off state-owned Landcorp, and the Maori Party would aim for New Zealand's freshwater not just to be swimmable, but "drinkable".

THE PRICE OF WATER

Regional councils allocate water by giving consents for industrial, energy, agricultural and domestic use.

Between 2013 and 2014, excluding hydro-electricity use, irrigation was the largest consented user of consumptive water by volume (51 per cent) followed by household use (14 per cent) and industry (13 per cent).

National has left a technical advisory group, as part of the Land and Water Forum, to look at possible new policy around the allocation and pricing of water.

"Our Government is not opposed to reform, but wants any new allocation policy to be fair, consistent and workable," Environment Minister Nick Smith told the Environmental Defence Society's recent conference.

But Labour has announced it would go ahead and charge water bottlers and others with heavy water consumption, at per-litre rates to be determined in a water summit after the election.

The royalties would be distributed to regional councils to fund improving the quality of rivers and streams, after some of the royalties had been paid to Maoridom to meet treaty settlements.

The Greens and New Zealand First would also make water bottlers pay, and the Maori Party would put an interim ban on exports by foreign companies until Maori rights and interests in water had been addressed.

ACT has stated it's against any moves for Maori to hold co-governance of water, while NZ First would drop provisions requiring consultation with iwi and oppose other recognition.

That's in contrast with Labour and TOP, which would both work to resolve Treaty issues around water.

But ACT and TOP are somewhat aligned in advocating cap and trade systems for commercial water use.

ACT would set up a market-based scheme for water rights like the Quota Management System, prevent over-allocation and ensure existing permits remained with holders until expiry with a "grandfathering" approach.

Under TOP's freshwater policy, consent owners would get priority to use a certain proportion of the water available for commercial use, but they'd be made to pay a market price for each litre they used - and they'd be banned from offering what they didn't to others.

TOP also favours a polluter-pays scheme, where those businesses that cross sustainable levels pay a penalty, and those who stay below them receive payment from the penalty pool.

'It makes me angry'

Eel fisherman Mike Holmes zips down the Waikato River as he travels between traps to check on his catch of the fresh water delicacy. Photo / Alan Gibson
Eel fisherman Mike Holmes zips down the Waikato River as he travels between traps to check on his catch of the fresh water delicacy. Photo / Alan Gibson

Veteran eel fisherman Mike Holmes stands to lose his livelihood if the degradation of New Zealand's waterways continues.

But he says Kiwis stand to lose much more - the right to enjoy our cherished rivers and lakes.

For some waterways, including many around the Waikato region where Holmes is based, it's already too late.

"The lower Waikato lakes, like Whangape and Waikare, we are not fishing there now because we've wrecked them," he said.

"It just annoys me, it makes me angry."

Holmes, who has watched the health of rivers decline over his three decades fishing in them, felt the only way to solve the problem was to halt inflows of nitrogen, phosphorus, effluent and sediments - or at least put firm limits on them.

Eels trapped by Waikato fisherman Mike Holmes. Photo / Alan Gibson
Eels trapped by Waikato fisherman Mike Holmes. Photo / Alan Gibson

The Government was doing some work, he said, "but they are not doing things that will make any difference in the positive".

And he believed the issue of water pricing and ownership urgently needed addressing.

"The claim that no one owns the water is absurd: clearly, people who irrigate do, and people who sell bottled water do, so to say that people don't flies in the faces of what we can see."

Putting a price on water for commercial use had to come, Holmes said, and he didn't see the challenge as too difficult.

Policy to stop to any public funds being spent on clean-ups was something else he wanted parties to be advocating.

Rather, it should be water users and polluters fronting up for the cost.

"They are making a killing out of it and what does the public get? All the public gets is a bill to clean it up.

"So I'd like to see the situation fixed and it definitely needs to be a talking point at this election."

POLICIES BY PARTY

NATIONAL:

Make 90 per cent of large rivers and lakes "swimmable" by 2040; require regional councils to improve water quality for swimming and report on progress every five years; drive a $2 billion improvement programme; fence off all waterways to all stock by 2030; review ownership, allocation and pricing issues through the Land and Water Forum; continue to fund irrigation projects with $90 million over the next few years and a total $400 million over time.

LABOUR: Make all rivers swimmable within a generation; fence off all intensively stocked land near waterways within five years; offer clean-up jobs to young people on the dole; charge water bottlers and others with heavy water consumption, at per-litre rates to be determined later and put the royalties toward clean-up projects and Maoridom to meet Treaty settlements.

GREENS: Require all waterways to be safe for swimming by reforming policy, scrapping large-scale irrigation subsidies and banning new dairy farms; strengthen drinking water safeguards; re-instate funding for the Drinking Water Subsidy Scheme; charge for the sale and export of bottled water at 10c a litre; charge all commercial users for the water they use with input from mana whenua, which would also receive some of the revenue.

NZ FIRST: Ensure water takes for agricultural irrigation and electricity generation are sustainable; ban water consent holders from transferring their consents if they no longer need the water for the reason their consent was granted; recognise unprotected "wild and scenic" rivers with new water conservation orders; charge a royalty on the export of drinking water; remove requirements to consult with iwi and oppose other recognition of iwi rights and interests in freshwater.

MAORI PARTY: Aim to make all freshwater "drinkable"; place an interim ban on exports by foreign companies until Maori rights and interests in water have been addressed; hold a Royal Commission of Inquiry into water quality, rights and ownership.

ACT: Oppose any moves for Maori to hold co-governance of water; establish a market-based scheme for water rights like the Quota Management System; prevent over-allocation and ensure existing permits remain with holders until expiry.

THE OPPORTUNITIES PARTY: Put an interim ban on intensification until catchments have water improvement plans; advocate a cap and trade system where water consent owners get priority to use a certain proportion but must pay a market price for each litre used and not sell what they don't use; make polluters pay for exceeding sustainable levels and reward others from the penalty pool.