During the 2017 election campaign, newly appointed Labour leader Jacinda Ardern spoke powerfully about her party's commitment to protecting and cleaning up New Zealand's rivers.

"When it comes to our rivers," she stated in Parliament in August 2017, "we will not accept that it is too hard. We will not accept that, and we will not accept a position that we simply sit back and allow this degradation to continue. We have set our standards and our sights higher no matter how hard that proposition might be."

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Stats NZ's most recent General Social Survey showed 80 per cent of New Zealanders identify the state of our rivers, lakes and wetlands as the country's most pressing environmental issue. Importantly, this figure is slightly higher, 84 per cent, within rural communities.

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Some opposition MPs have self-servingly claimed that any concern about agriculture's impact on water means you "hate farmers". But the survey found both urban and rural New Zealanders most commonly identify agriculture as having the biggest impact on the country's waterways, followed by pollution from sewage systems.

Concern about widespread pollution of waterways led to water being one of the top election issues for 2017. Labour's clear message was that it was listening to the public.

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Cleaning up rivers was one of Labour's top three campaign messages and it promised to tackle this national issue if it got in to power.

"The more I think about the issue of water quality, the more angry it makes me. We can fix it though, we just need more political willpower (and a change of government)," Ardern wrote on social media that year.

Now, in 2020, with its freshwater policy due to be finalised this year, the Labour-led Government must deliver on its promises to the public or risk backlash and a serious blow to its credibility.

Ardern was right; protecting New Zealand's water for the public requires staunch political will. The Coalition Government is under pressure from the highest-polluting industries to weaken the policy.

Dairy industry executives, responsible for the vast majority of nitrogen pollution of New Zealand's waterways, flexed their PR muscles at the end of last year following the release of the government's "Action for healthy waterways" discussion document.

DairyNZ CEO Tim Mackle has been particularly active. As part of DairyNZ's campaign to weaken freshwater policy, it commissioned reports on the effect of the policy on New Zealand's economy.

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Modelling carried out for the reports by two different economic consultancies reached the same conclusion: that New Zealand would better off economically if it implemented the Government's proposed water standards. However, Mackle has used this modelling to claim the economic cost to the country would be too great.

Professor Tim Hazledine, economist from Auckland University, criticised DairyNZ, writing that the organisation's interpretation of the modelling was, "unsurprising, though misleading".

Hazledine concluded, "New Zealand overall is forecast in the modelling to be slightly better off in economic terms as a result of the freshwater policies, even without adding in benefits from better water quality and lower carbon emissions."

What has dawned on many over recent years is that dairy leadership's blinkered drive to increase milk production, supported by the previous National Government's goal to double exports, has not only been a disaster environmentally with the public bearing the cost of the pollution. It's also failing economically with Fonterra announcing major write-downs and losses last year.

Ardern said on the campaign trail, "I have never accepted that we have to choose between a clean environment and a prosperous economy," and the modelling shows we don't have to.

Marnie Prickett. Photo / supplied
Marnie Prickett. Photo / supplied

The most important parts of the Government's proposed policy, the parts that would actually stop our freshwater disasters from getting worse and begin the work to clean up our rivers, are the very parts of the policy dairy industry execs are trying to force the Government to give up on.

Effective policy will include real bottom lines for pollution, like nitrogen, to improve and protect the health of the rivers we love. A 1mg/L bottom line for nitrogen is essential to improve the most degraded rivers. As well as this, clear rules are needed to target the highest polluters, like a cap on nitrogen fertiliser use.

"The main problem is now ever increasing intensive livestock farming, more cows per hectare, more fertiliser and irrigation, all cause more effluent and nutrient pollution to run off into our rivers," Ardern said in 2017.

Ardern was right in 2017 and now the country is relying on her to be right in 2020 by putting in place freshwater policy that makes good on her promises.

Marnie Prickett is the spokesperson of Choose Clean Water.