When I was a child, swimming in rivers and lakes was one of the best parts of summer. We'd hike for hours on school trips to reach the perfect swimming spot, then wade in squealing, feeling the muddy sand squish between our toes. As we dove deep into the chilly depths, the biggest concern we had to contend with was a stray eel, a bit of weed or, if our feet settled on the wrong rock, perhaps an irritated koura. Nowadays the water alone could land you in hospital.

There's something in the water: dung and urine. And lots of other rubbish. But agricultural waste accounts for a significant portion of our aquatic woes. The fact is indisputable, although there are plenty of powerful organisations and individuals that try, repeatedly, to dispute it. Agriculture is big business in New Zealand. And if there's one thing that big business hates, it's admitting culpability.

But here's the reality: In our little land of plenty, we have many more cows than our environment can cope with. We have one of the most beautiful environments on earth, but it's fast becoming overwhelmed by the waste - in the form of both excrement and nutrients - generated largely by one of our major economic powerhouses; the dairy industry.

On top of that, we've cut most of our forests down for farming, which has led to sediment being swept into our waterways, and we're drawing arguably unsustainable quantities of water from some waterways to irrigate farms. Then there's the fact that some commercial enterprises are pouring pollution into our rivers, with the blessing of the RMA. And the less than 1 per cent of our waterways that are in urban centres aren't exactly pristine either.


The net result of these factors is that many of our waterways are in a dire state, and it's not just our summer swimming practices (and our valuable "clean, green" image) that are at risk. Whole ecosystems are being threatened and some drinking systems are at risk of contamination. In short, we have a major problem on our hands, and it's going to cost a lot of money to fix it.

And so a political hot potato was born. Deep down, we all know that we have to address our water worries, but the argument about who's going to foot the bill has quickly become ugly. Anyone watching the collective spitting the dummy of various sides of the argument over the past few weeks could be forgiven for thinking they'd walked into the middle of a food fight at kindy. A mythical $18 cabbage was hurled from one side, while a hysterical kick was aimed at Māori by another. Frankly, we've been witnessing a disgusting display of disrespect for an issue that Kiwis care deeply about.

No one is saying that addressing our water problems will be easy. It will be a long term project that requires buy in, sacrifice and commitment from all New Zealanders. But it is too important to our nation and our future to not make a meaningful go of it now. As intensification continues and climate change ramps up the heat, the situation will only get worse. Now is the hour.

Deep down, we all know that we have to address our water worries, but the argument about who's going to foot the bill has quickly become ugly.

We need to start acting like kaitiaki. That's a Māori word and concept that loosely translates as "guardians". To do that, we'll have to put our individual interests second in order to put our environment first. We'll have to start using water responsibly. For those who have played an undeniable and outsized role in polluting the environment that may mean paying a royalty. (I know some farmers are making a real effort, but there's much more that needs to be done.) For others it may mean working bees to plant native plants on riparian strips. Everyone has a role to play in the clean-up, so the sooner we start working together, the better.

And as for whether Māori have an interest in the water, they do. The Waitangi Tribunal has said so. The common law principle of Native Title says so. For the Government to outright claim that "nobody owns the water" is misleading. It is, as it's called these days, an "alternative fact". For the Government to instantly start squawking about Waitangi Tribunal claims is scaremongering. It's also insulting, given Māori are among the most dedicated advocates for the environment.

The idea that receiving a royalty from something automatically makes you the owner is also bogus. I have a right to royalties from my first album, for example, but it is and will forever be owned by my then record label. The most salient point is that Māori are primarily concerned, like most other New Zealanders, about saving our waterways. To us, the rivers are our ancestors. They are taonga.

It does give me pause, however, when I think about the many rights to water that have been given out over the years to various organisations and individuals. How is it okay for Coca-Cola to make a tidy profit out of our water, but unthinkable for Māori to even have an interest? How have local governments been able to give away or sell water permits to farmers with no uproar, but the moment Māori are brought into the conversation it turns into another round of public Māori-bashing?

When it comes to water rights, the double standards already exist, and they have nothing to do with so-called "Māori privilege".


That argument, however, is a distraction from the main issue, which is the responsibility we all have as Kiwis to look after our precious environment. A royalty sounds like a reasonable first step; hopefully be the first of many. Saving our waterways won't just involve a few quick fixes, it'll involve a shift in the way we think about the environment and our relationship with it.

The sooner that shift happens, the better. Our kids and our grandkids will thank us for it.