The release of the first tranche of the Green Party's environmental policy contained one sentiment certain to resonate with all New Zealanders. The Greens, said co-leader Russel Norman, had "a vision where families can head down to their local swimming hole or beach and jump right in the water without worrying about getting sick". This was once a given for generations of New Zealanders. Thus there is a ready interest in the Greens' prescription for getting back to that situation. This is a nitty-gritty issue for them and important not only for their election prospects but, potentially, for prodding other parties' policy.
The pollution of waterways is the result in large part of the runoff of unwanted nutrients, especially nitrogen, because of farming practices, especially the expansion of dairying. Notwithstanding that, the Government has a target of doubling the value of agricultural exports by 2025. The problem was highlighted late last year by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. This was, said Jan Wright, "a classic economy versus environment dilemma". Unless New Zealand took urgent steps to slow the expansion of dairying, many more rivers and lakes would be degraded, she said.
The strength of the Greens' policy lies in the way it provides that urgency. They would implement a national standard for water quality that would make rivers clean enough to swim in. Councils would have until 2020 to implement the new standards, among them a maximum level for pollutants. The Greens would also establish a protected rivers network, similar to national parks, to "stop the destruction of rivers from irrigation, dams and pollution, while retaining the full right of all New Zealanders to use the rivers for food gathering and recreation".
This, they said, would protect the best of our rivers. Hopefully, any such network would acknowledge that the stress on waterways and their capacity to handle more dairying differs from place to place. Account must be taken of whether a river flows quickly or slowly, and whether it drains into a lake, coastal wetland or the sea.
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The Government has damned the Greens' policy as anti-growth and said it would cost billions. It is notably less pessimistic about striking a balance between a high-performing dairy industry and a clean environment. According to the Prime Minister, this is "certainly possible". Partly, that involves farmers cleaning up their act, with the fencing of streams, riparian planting and the more precise use of urea. Additionally, the Government has announced minimum national standards for fresh water. But these are designed to ensure only that boating and wading are safe activities, with further improvements up to local authorities.
It is difficult to detect a great sense of urgency in all this. It is in that context that the Greens' policy warrants attention. Certainly, the Government should not be ignoring the potential damage of poor water quality to the country's image. As Dr Norman noted: "If your strategy for the dairy sector is more pollution, more expansion and more milk powder ... it will destroy our rivers and the clean green brand that underpins our agricultural and tourism sectors." Most obviously at risk is tourism, the country's second major export earner.
As the parliamentary commissioner made clear, this is an uncomfortable situation. The Government, clearly, is not unaware of this. It has responded, if not to the degree that most environmentalists would wish. The Greens' reaction is, as would be expected, far more ambitious. It may yet be influential if it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile the aims of agricultural expansion and improved water quality.