It's the time of year to get close to nature. Forest & Bird has thoughtfully released a list of 10 places ("New Zealand's hidden treasures") where families can do just that. Except that none of the country's numerous lakes, rivers or streams are named among them.

The Lord of the Rings actor and New Zealand tour guide operator Bruce Hopkins is not surprised, calling our rivers and lakes "gutter holes" and "sewer pipes". He slams the "clean green" image behind the 100% Pure New Zealand promotion.

Acting Tourism Minister Paula Bennett has defended it, saying: "It's an award-winning campaign that is working brilliantly for New Zealand with record growth in visitor numbers.

"It's not, and never has been, an environmental measure."

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Hopkins believes "we are leaning towards being deceptive around how we sell ourselves as a tourist destination".

Regardless, it is an uncontroversial fact that the state of the country's freshwater resources has for decades been moving towards ecological collapse.

It's an environmental crisis second to none.

Freshwater ecosystems are key features of New Zealand's natural heritage. Plentiful precipitation feeds many hundreds of streams, more than 70 major rivers, about 770 lakes and numerous underground aquifers.

More than 700 lakes are classified as "shallow" and up to 40 per cent of these are nutrient-enriched and no longer capable of supporting fish life.

Most of the badly affected lakes are in the North Island.

Freshwater is a renewable resource but, because it is limited, has to be allocated among users.

Until relatively recently, water has never been considered a scarce resource in New Zealand. Consequently, the economic and regulatory controls over its allocation and use have been neglected.

The per capita water extraction rate in New Zealand is almost three times higher than the average for OECD counties.

The greatest impacts, however, have not come from water use but from land use.

Sources of impacts on water quality as ranked by regional authorities are:

1. Agriculture - vegetation clearance, land drainage and channelling, draw-off for irrigation and stock watering, and run-off and waste discharges from farms and agricultural processing facilities.

2. Urban - sewage, industrial waste, stormwater run-off, draw-off for household and industrial uses, and urban expansion into wetlands and estuaries.

3. Dams - sedimentation, disruption of river habitats; loss of land through inundation.

4. Mining - run-off and waste discharge from open cast mines and road access.

5. Forestry - a relatively small impact from shading of streams, acidity of water, run-off from unsealed access roads.

Management of freshwater is the responsibility of the country's 17 regional authorities. Central government also plays a part under the Resource Management Act.

The Primary Sector Water Partnership created in 2008 aimed at bringing together major primary sector industries to improve water quality in New Zealand.

The idea was to draw together environmental initiatives from the partners. The extent to which the partnership has any authority is not clear.

The Land Water Forum formed in 2010 is a wider grouping that involves members of the partnership, but includes central and local governments, interest groups and iwi. Its aim is "to ensure that water will meet the ongoing cultural, economic, environmental and social needs of New Zealand".

Chris de Freitas is an associate professor in the School of Environment at the University of Auckland. Photo / Supplied
Chris de Freitas is an associate professor in the School of Environment at the University of Auckland. Photo / Supplied

As of September 2011, none of the forum's recommendations had been implemented.

The National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management was passed by the Government in 2011. The aim was set at maintaining or improving "the overall quality of freshwater in New Zealand".

According to a Cawthron Institute report on the National Policy Statement, this means some rivers and lakes can be further degraded as long as the regional council has plans for others to be improved.

Polluted lakes and rivers may only get worse under a flawed National Policy Statement on water policy, because regional councils have been given too long (up to 30 years) to set pollution limits.

There has been some progress in establishing policies in the farming sector to improve water quality.

A Dairying and Clean Streams Accord was agreed to in 2003. It is a voluntary partnership that relies on the goodwill of the dairy farmers and dairy co-operatives to set and meet targets.

So far progress has been erratic. On the positive side, both the 2007 target to exclude dairy cows from more than 50 per cent of waterways and the 2012 target for bridging 90 per cent of streams were achieved in 2006.

On the other hand, there is little data to show that many dairy farmers have set up systems to manage the amount of fertilisers applied to their land. Once nitrogen fertiliser is leached into the environment there is no effective way to remove it.

The dearth of data is the main problem, second only to apathy. To ensure that the desired results of environmental management are achieved, the quality and quantity of environmental information needs to be greatly improved.

Chris de Freitas is an associate professor in the School of Environment at the University of Auckland and lead author of the book New Environmentalism: Managing New Zealand's Environmental Diversity (Springer, Dordrecht).

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