The Green Party's plan to restrict dams and irrigation schemes, and make rivers clean enough to swim in, would save taxpayer money and benefit the agricultural industry in the long term, says co-leader Russel Norman.
The party launched one pillar of its election environmental policy in Hamilton yesterday: cleaning up rivers with a strengthening of existing regulations, a tighter cap on pollution, and setting up a protected network of rivers.
Within hours, the Government attacked the policy, saying it was anti-growth and would cost billions, forcing Dr Norman to reframe the policy as an economic one.
Environment Minister Amy Adams called the policy "costly and impractical".
"The Greens need to explain where they will find the billions of dollars of costs and lost revenue it could take to make every single centimetre of New Zealand's 425,000 kilometres of rivers and streams suitable for swimming."
Dr Norman summarised the Government policy as spending hundreds of millions of dollars to pollute via irrigation schemes, and then throwing more money into cleaning up that pollution.
"And then we end up with rivers so toxic that we can't swim in them."
He said cleaner rivers was a part of an economic strategy of products with higher value, "more innovation and more research and development, while protecting the brand".
"If your strategy for the dairy sector is more pollution, more expansion and more milk powder, as the Government's is, then it will destroy our rivers and the clean, green brand that underpins our agricultural and tourism sectors."
A network of protected rivers would restrict irrigation, dams and pollution. It would also ban new dams on all wild rivers, and stop Government subsidies for developing dams, including those planned for Hawkes Bay, the Wairarapa and Canterbury.
The Government's National Objectives Framework, which comes into force next month, creates a minimum water quality standard to ensure boating and wading are safe activities. Further improvements are up to local authorities, but the Greens want the minimum standard to be clean enough to swim in.
Dr Norman said the Government had produced standards where "even if you touch a water body, you have a one in 20 chance of a serious infection".
Under the Greens' proposal, councils would have until 2020 to implement new water quality standards, among them a maximum level for pollutants.
Clean rivers policy
• A network of protected rivers, similar to National Park status.
• Minimum water standards so it is safe to swim in every river.
• Stricter restrictions on new dams, irrigation schemes and pollution.