The Government's new freshwater policy unfolds slowly. By 2040 - over 20 years or a generation away - it wants 90 per cent of New Zealand's lakes and rivers to be "swimmable" in the sense that swimmers could dip their head in the water and not get sick.

Not so many years ago it was possible to jump in the car and head to a swimming hole for a summer picnic. The advice now is to go on the regional council website to check the bacteria count. Given the lead time of the new policy, it will remain that way for a few years yet.

In "clean, green New Zealand" just 72 per cent of rivers, streams and lakes are currently considered safe for swimming. Even then, common sense suggests rivers are best avoided after heavy rain. In parts of the country where intensive dairying is practised, rivers and lakes are off-limits.

The release of the freshwater target did not go smoothly for Environment Minister Nick Smith. He resorted to accusing his opponents of using "junk science" to attack the policy. But he made a rod for his back by defining the concept of "swimmable" in a way that hardly conforms with the ordinary meaning of the term and suggesting it would result in waterways being "more swimmable than anywhere in the world".


The Government's new standard is 540 E. coli per 100 millilitres of water. If a river meets that standard 80 per cent of the time, it falls into the swimmable category.

The previous measure based on Ministry of Health guidelines put the acceptable level at less than 260 E. coli per 100ml of water, which equated to a 1 per cent risk of infection from illnesses such as campylobacter. This was the bug that laid low thousands of Havelock North residents last year when their water supply was contaminated.

The cost of cleaning up these waterways - all 10,000km of them - is put at $2 billion, to be paid by central and local government and farmers. The policy puts a deadline on fencing streams to keep livestock from fouling water. The fencing target date - 2030 - is a fair way off, though the deadline for dairy cows is this July for waterways over 1m wide.

The protracted implementation period means the current Government will be long forgotten when 2040 rolls round. The proposed policy serves the purpose of addressing water quality as a political issue before the election and permits the Government to argue that it is responding to public concern.

The day after the minister released his policy, Fish & Game issued photographs of the Selwyn River at Coes Ford, 30km from Christchurch. A once-popular swimming hole, the riverbed has dried up. It was a tangible reminder of the degraded state of some rivers.

The Selwyn, and many like it, could do with help now, not by 2040. The policy represents a start. The shame is it could have been better.