Sam Judd

Comment on the environment from nzherald.co.nz columnist Sam Judd

Sam Judd: Rivers like a Sunday morning toilet bowl

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As our weather heats up with summer just around the corner, people waking up on a Sunday morning and hoping to have a cool dip in the water have a real cause for concern.

Last week, the Ministry for the Environment released a scathing report on the health of our waterways: over half of our popular river spots are too polluted to swim in.

This is not a new issue - rather we are seeing the effects of the widespread intensification of land use starting to hit us where it really hurts. How can we create a tourism market based on a pure brand when overseas visitors who want to swim in our 'pristine' waters end up having to wade through what appears worse than a public toilet with diarrhea?

Back in 2010, the Land and Water Forum concluded that New Zealand has made good progress in clearing up point source pollution over the last 20 years and that diffuse discharges (which now greatly exceed point source pollution) have caused water quality to continue to decline.

It would be easy to take another dig at the 'dirty dairy' farms and point the finger at Fonterra, but again this is old news. The unfortunate thing about blaming a giant cooperative is that a good number of the individual dairy farmers are doing a fantastic job in looking after the waterways. Take Murray and Liz Walden up in Northland (a region that is consistently behind on water quality). They won a regional award from the New Zealand Farm Environment Trust for exceptional work in managing effluent and nutrient escape, but the region still has a bad report card.

It is not that easy for all farmers to do what the Waldens have done. Restoring the waterways on a farm is very expensive and a huge drain on the resources that many farmers have.

Many farmers out there would much rather have all of their waterways fenced off and planted out, (it actually helps reduce the amount of fertiliser required and stops animals from getting stuck and contracting diseases) but they just can't afford to do it.

How many people out there are actually working out solutions with farmers to this monumental challenge?

The Waihou River runs from around the Tirau / Putaruru area all the way out to the Firth of Thames. One of the key source points is the crystal clear, artisanal waters of the Blue Spring, where over 60% of New Zealand's bottled water comes from. From here, this waterway flows through South Waikato, the Hauraki Plains and pours out, as brown as a Sunday morning toilet bowl under the Kopu bridge into the Firth of Thames along with over 150,000 tonnes of sediment each year.

It wasn't always like this.

When Captain Cook arrived in the Firth of Thames, he instructed his crew to eat watercress from the river mouth to ward off scurvy.

You would be hard pressed to find someone swimming in the mouth of the Waihou River today, let alone eating from it.

Fencing off and planting out this waterway would help the health of the river to a great degree, but we are talking about 1,500 kilometres at least. Fencing alone usually costs $8 - $11 per metre, so it is a vastly expensive process that will need collaboration between many different stakeholders and we are talking about a public resource - water - that we share so the stakeholders are everyone.

One girl - Alana Scott - has made some great inroads that have motivated volunteers to help with this task.

Perhaps if we can learn from Alana's success, gather more momentum with volunteers helping farmers tackle this major restoration work around the country, then maybe one hot day in the future, we could jump off the Kopu bridge into water that wouldn't make us sick.

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