The war over our water - swimming in it, drinking it, taking it, selling it - hit boiling point last year. Will it simmer in 2018? Jamie Morton looks at the big picture

Next to the Selwyn River is a "temporary" health warning sign.

It's been there for at least 20 years.

One day, a fed-up Mike Glover painted the word "permanent" over it.


The artist moved to Springston South, a half-hour drive from Christchurch, in the 1990s.

Since then, the river that flows just 400m from his family's front-door has sometimes become sick and green under the strain of pollution.

His local swimming hole, Chamberlains Ford, was temporarily closed this summer after officials discovered toxic blue-green algae.

Just before Christmas, another shady refuge further down the Selwyn, Coes Ford, was graded unsafe for a dip by a new national swimming index.

"With the intensification of dairying we've seen here, the nitrates in the water have gone up so much that we're getting algal blooms all the time," Glover says.

Beginning high in the Canterbury foothills, the Selwyn snakes its way east for 80km, through wide shingle channels and a patchwork of farmland, before emptying into Lake Ellesmere.

In dry years, it can vanish beneath its stony bed.

The flow has been healthier this summer, but that didn't matter as long as the nitrates were still there.


It only had to warm up for the blooms to come.

"Ecan has predicted that nitrates entering the Selwyn environment will increase by 50 per cent in the coming years - even after their new rules are brought in for farming," Glover said.

"So, in the future, when the our rivers and drinking water are completely stuffed, we'll look back and see this time as the good old days."

The Selwyn has become symbolic of the freshwater crisis and all that's been blamed for it - too many dairy cows on pastures, the pressures of irrigation, and now, the potential threat of fouled drinking water.

What once might have been a battle between farmers and environmentalists has pulled in scientists, politicians, and the rest of us.

Three quarters of Kiwis are either very or extremely concerned about the pollution of rivers and lakes, found a new Colmar Brunton poll.

That concern has only heightened as record heat has sent Kiwis flocking to our local rivers and lakes, many other places been off limits - suprisingly among them tourist draws like Lake Hayes near Queenstown and Gisborne's famous Rere rockslide.

In Auckland, officials have been forced to close beaches several times over ongoing headaches with stormwater and wastewater outflows.

But the debate isn't now just about whether all of us should be able to safely swim in our water, but safely drink it.

Canterbury resident Mike Glover, with the sign he re-painted near the Selwyn River. Photo / Supplied
Canterbury resident Mike Glover, with the sign he re-painted near the Selwyn River. Photo / Supplied

If the gastro outbreak that struck down more than 5000 Havelock North residents wasn't indication enough our comparatively good drinking water supply could still be contaminated, dramatic findings of a government inquiry into the debacle was.

Up to 100,000 Kiwis have been getting sick from drinking tap water every year.

And while people in places like Auckland and Wellington had safe supplies, 20 per cent of the country - more than 700,000 New Zealanders and countless more tourists - were at risk.

The revelation that some underground wells could be affected by contamination last month prompted Christchurch's leaders to chlorinate the city's water supply for a year - a move that may become increasingly common.

Massey University freshwater ecologist Professor Russell Death was blunt in his assessment of the national picture.

"Toxic algae blooms in rivers and lakes all over New Zealand; increasing nitrates in Canterbury groundwater; four deaths from the Havelock North incident; and drinking water all around the country below standard," Death said.

"Surely, most people can see that these events are increasing in severity, occurrence and extent all over New Zealand."

If Kiwis hadn't noticed, the international media had.

Just before Christmas, Coes Ford on Canterbury's Selwyn River was considered unsafe for a dip by a new national swimming index. It's since been classified as suitable. Photo / File
Just before Christmas, Coes Ford on Canterbury's Selwyn River was considered unsafe for a dip by a new national swimming index. It's since been classified as suitable. Photo / File

A growing number of big-name outlets - The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Al Jazeera - have published articles drawing disparity with New Zealand's clean, green brand.

One recent Guardian headline called it "a lie".

Sir Tim Smit went even further when speaking to a conference of major UK landowners considering a post-Brexit farming model.

The UK environmentalist warned them against following our dairy industry's path to intensification, saying it had made New Zealand "a beautiful person with cancer".


Is the situation really that dire?

Previous government monitoring reports suggested up to two-thirds of checked sites were unsafe for swimming.

But overall trends vary, depending on what measure is looked at.

Levels of E.coli - a bacteria linked to animal or human faeces that can leave swimmers suffering vomiting, cramping, nausea and diarrhoea -aren't going up or down at most sites.

But, when compared with the relatively unspoiled waterways that flow through our native wilderness, levels are 22 times higher in towns and cities, and nearly 10 times higher in the pastoral countryside.

Arguably as important, if not more, are two key nutrients linked to intensification.

Nitrogen and phosphorus come from livestock waste, fertiliser and eroded soil, as well as septic tanks and sewer systems.

If too much enters waterways - whether by leaching through the soil or being washed off roads and paddocks - algae can grow in large amounts.

This triggers a cascade of problems - notably decreased oxygen levels and reduced light - which can hurt or kill species, and fuel toxic blooms.

A stocktake published last year by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics NZ showed that between 1994 and 2013 - a period that saw an explosion in cow numbers amid dairy's white gold rush - levels of nitrate-nitrogen in monitored rivers were getting worse (55 per cent) at more sites than were improving (28 per cent).

On the flip side, rates of dissolved reactive phosphorus were improving (42 per cent) at more sites than worsening (25 per cent).

Virtually all of New Zealand's total river length - some 180,000km - didn't yet have nitrate-nitrogen concentrations high enough to hurt the growth of sensitive species living within them.

But three-quarters of monitored native fish species were nonetheless nearing extinction, and 90 per cent of our natural wetlands have been wiped out, along with an untold number of plants and animals that depended upon them.

Freshwater scientists have singled out the loss of sediments into waterways - harming streambed habitats and filling surface water with extra nutrients - as another big problem.

Dam systems have affected many places and the flows of waterways originating, like the Selwyn, from springs and foothills have fallen.

City streams, suffering from the added impact of heavy metals, are the most polluted of any but ultimately remain a small proportion of our freshwater network.

Our lakes aren't all quite as "full of algae" as Sir Tim claimed, but the reality is still far from ideal.

A recent five-year grading of 65 lakes using the trophic level index, which combines four water quality indicators to signify life-supporting capacity, shows 24 sites had good or very good scores, the same number had poor or very poor scores, and the rest were rated moderate.

Rere Rockslide, south of Gisborne. Photo / File
Rere Rockslide, south of Gisborne. Photo / File

And the state of our drinking water, as the inquiry noted, isn't ideal either, despite the Ministry of Health recently reporting that nearly all of the 3.7m people in its last survey were receiving water that met bacteriological standards, the most important criteria.

The challenge of supplying safe drinking water to all Kiwis has become tougher over the past few decades, due to heightened risk, economic constraints and declining national public health capacity.

"The rise in cattle density is adding huge quantities of untreated animal manure to the environment - the 10 million cattle in New Zealand are adding an estimated 250,000 tonnes of untreated faecal material per day, compared with only 800 tonnes of human waste, which is largely treated," Otago University's Professor Michael Baker says.

"In addition, climate change is likely to increase the frequency of heavy rainfall events which can overwhelm water treatment facilities - this combination of factors creates the perfect storm of conditions for large, deadly waterborne outbreaks in the future."​

The other big part of the water debate is who is taking it - and who can own it?

New Zealand is blessed with an abundance of water, and just a fraction of it is actually being used - but not all of it is in the right place at the right time.

The demand for water- for farming, for drinking and for other industrial uses - has surged by around three quarters in just 15 years.

In a rising number of areas, and perhaps nowhere more visibly than Canterbury, water allocation has reached or crossed sustainable limits.

That pressure will only mount as our population grows, agriculture continues to ramp up, and climate change brings drought and lower rainfall to already dry areas in the north and east.

Until now, water has been allocated on a first-in, first served approach - and iwi have often been left at the back of the queue.

Lake Hayes near Queenstown. Photo / File
Lake Hayes near Queenstown. Photo / File

Although the Crown's position has long been that no one owns the water, many Maori have disagreed: and a 2012 Waitangi Tribunal decision found that, in some cases, Maori have proprietary rights, or ownership rights.

Any Crown tax on water - a prickly question that's been thrown to the cross-table Land and Water Forum to thrash out - will inevitably have to address iwi interests.


New year, new leadership.

Will change come in 2018?

"I'd like to think so," Mike Glover says.

"At least, I hope this Government will be looking a lot more at proper solutions."

So what can be done?

Much of that depends on what the new coalition Government does with the 47-page rulebook that regional councils must use when setting their own policy.

The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, or NPS, has been twice tweaked since National introduced it in 2011 as a guide to help councils carry out their responsibilities under the Resource Management Act.

The most recent rewrite, last year, set a new bottom line: all large rivers and lakes have to be "swimmable" by 2040, based on a new standard that critics have been quick to question.

Councils have been given until 2025 to build in the latest changes, which also include requirements around ecological health, iwi involvement and consideration - within limits - for "economic wellbeing".

Massey University freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy was scathing of that document, which he says puts short-term economic gain before the environment.

Joy questions how it was that one site, in a Manawatu River dairy catchment, could score perfectly under the new NPS when conditions within it were lethal for all life.

As far as he was concerned, the current regime was "hands-off" and blanketed in spin.

With the exception of Bay of Plenty Regional Council, regional authorities were failing to address the elephant in the river - nitrogen.

Ahead of the election, Labour pledged a new 12-point plan that included a new NPS, based on tough principles recommended by former Environment Court judge David Sheppard.

Massey University freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy said current regulation put short-term economic gain before the environment. Photo / File
Massey University freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy said current regulation put short-term economic gain before the environment. Photo / File

It would have made any further increases in farming intensity no longer a "permitted activity", cracked down harder on polluters, and aimed for all rivers and lakes to be swimmable, with extended quality standards.

Further, Labour wanted all intensively stocked land near waterways to be fenced off within five years, breaches of the Resource Management Act to be enforced by either the Environmental Protection Authority or the ministry, and for the Audit Office to make sure every regional council was doing its job properly.

Now it is in power, it is unclear whether Labour will make good on those promises.

Labour's coalition agreement with NZ First vaguely references "higher water quality standards for urban and rural using measurements which take into account seasonal differences", along with no resource rentals for water this term, and a new royalty on exports of bottled water.

Its confidence and supply terms with the Green Party include a commitment for "stronger regulatory instruments" and better enforcing the RMA, more funding, and winding down Government support for irrigation.

Environment Minister David Parker has said his priority is to "hold the line" against further degradation.

"What I am planning is a range of measures that will reduce the discharge into our waterways of pollutants and contaminants as soon as possible.

"I am also looking at what's needed to ensure we have an effective and durable system for managing water quality and use for the long term."

The Government is reviewing all the recommendations made by the Land and Water Forum, many of which have been ignored.

Parker has asked the forum for advice on what can be done between now and 2020 to stop further damage, and how to allocate nutrient and sediment loads by catchment, without having to repeat the same debates in each regional council area.

"I acknowledge the many thousands of farmers, in catchment groups and on their own land who are voluntarily fencing to exclude stock from waterways and bush, who are planting trees and taking other measures to reduce their environmental impact.

"These are important steps and are to be applauded. But at an industry level, there is more of a shift required to ensure sustainable land use."

"I am interested in seeing our agriculture sector innovating to reduce its environmental impact across water quality, climate change gas emissions, and impacts on our land."

He says exactly what the new NPS would look like will be decided over the next few months.

"At a high level it will be based on the Sheppard principles and it will focus on setting standards for more attributes of water quality, as well as retaining targets for E. coli.

"Sediment and nutrients are top of the list for further work but there are other indicators of water quality that we are considering."

"What I am planning is a range of measures that will reduce the discharge into our waterways of pollutants and contaminants as soon as possible," Environment Minister David Parker says. Photo / File

Parker acknowledges that many councils are facing challenges with the new NPS, and have asked the ministry to look at how it could be improved.

On the matter of ownership, Parker points to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's affirmation that no one - and everyone - owns our water.

"We have an ongoing conversation with iwi and hapu and I'm not going to have that conversation through the media."

As for drinking water, he says announcements are due soon.

National's environment spokesperson Scott Simpson says Parker has talked "a big game", but has not yet offered solutions.

"During the election Labour and the Greens criticised water policy, as too soft whereas NZ First courted the farming vote saying they were too strict," Simpson says.

"These contradictory positions by parties in Government are confusing for the sector and will cause further concern and angst in the rural community.

"The minister needs to front up and provide certainty and clarity."

Simpson says economic growth and improving the environment "can and must go hand in hand".

"It would be simplistic to cut cow numbers or ban growth - that's a blunt and unsophisticated approach that will not serve New Zealand well long term."


But was it?

In a candid opinion piece published last month, the boss of New Zealand's largest farmer, state-owned Pamu (formerly Landcorp) said change was needed - and the future would require fewer animals on land and more plants.

"Our success as a farming nation has been built squarely on converting land to extract maximum profit – usually by putting more animals on the land to produce more meat, milk and wool," Steve Carden said.

Cutting cow numbers isn't the answer, says National's Scott Simpson. Photo / File
Cutting cow numbers isn't the answer, says National's Scott Simpson. Photo / File

"The problem is that we have now reached the economic, social and environmental limits of how we currently farm and we need a new strategy for creating wealth from our farms and from the land we have been entrusted with."

Environment groups, along with leaders in tourism, science and health, have drawn up their own "freshwater rescue plan", which asks for about-turn on intensification, tougher policing, a polluter-pays approach and no more public subsidies for irrigation projects.

It was rejected by National as "simplistic" when put before Parliament last year but the calls for it haven't quietened.

"Strong policy is a clear practical first step and, importantly, its achievable in the short-term but will have long-term benefits," says Marnie Prickett of Choose Clean Water, a grass-roots group that gathered a 10,000-strong petition calling for action.

"To get real, meaningful limits on contamination, it's important that the Government listens to independent scientists rather than continuing to listen to those people paid to represent the interests of polluters."

Fish and Game wants a stronger benchmark to improve water quality within the next decade.

"Hard targets need to be set for polluters and strict penalties imposed on those who will not comply," chief executive Martin Taylor says.

"Why? The only way to change commercial business behaviour is by increasing the cost of pollution so they are compelled to change."

Environmental Defence Society chairman Gary Taylor says the problem could also be tackled by creating a new independent land and water commission, factoring sediment and urban contaminants and tightening up resource consenting.

"Compliance monitoring and enforcement is still weak."

Greenpeace backs a cow cull, pointing out how our dairy herd now produces more than 150 million litres of nitrogen-rich urine each day.

Since 2008, New Zealand's national dairy herd had swelled with a million extra cows. Photo / File
Since 2008, New Zealand's national dairy herd had swelled with a million extra cows. Photo / File

Forest and Bird's freshwater advocate, Annabeth Cohen, turns to new research revealing that more than three-quarters of New Zealand's national load of nitrogen and phosphorus contamination stems from small streams in flat catchments dominated by pastoral farming.

These streams are exempt from any fencing regulations and seldom part of the voluntary riparian fencing and planting efforts by farmers and regional councils under accords such as the industry-led Sustainable Dairying Water Accord.

"This means that to make real inroads into reducing freshwater pollution, new mitigations and regulations need to be investigated for our small streams."


Sector groups, meanwhile, are urging the new Government to proceed with care.

"The scale of what is required to improve freshwater quality is monumental and technically complex," says Charlotte Cudby, a senior policy analyst with Water New Zealand.

The group, representing some 1500 players in the industry, wants to see more done to help councils deal with contaminants and wastewater overflows, along with costs and expertise needed to adapt to the new NPS, especially in areas with low ratepayer bases.

"Without backing policy up with good technical support and capability, the costs to ratepayers to implement the policy will be much more than they should be and environmental gains will take longer," Cudby says.

That is echoed by Local Government New Zealand president Dave Cull, who says such costs have "not been adequately considered" in the past.

"Considering the cost of improved water quality and how this will be paid for should be a critical part of any consideration of future changes."

Cull sees a big need for better science, as do farming lobbies.

"We want more data - better data about the water quality, quantities and issues we are dealing with," says Federated Farmers' water spokesperson Chris Allen.

Challenges around water quality also have to be tackled from a local persective, not a national one, he says, and Federated Farmers is concerned about a one-size fits all approach.

"Any solutions should take into account the regional perspective and how that may impact on those rural communities and their ability to grow," Allen says.

"For example, a blanket requirement for consents for farming and farming activities would be detrimental to the primary sector as a whole."

Allen even contends that, if managed carefully, there is room for more intensification in some areas.

In other places, he concedes, "maybe not".

"Too often rules and regulations are unable to be implemented and result in perverse or worse outcomes," he says.

"Any future decisions or strategies around regulations and policies have to be based on science rather than reflex emotions and propaganda."

Asked whether farmers think they are being painted as the bad guys, Allen says past generations tended to have some connection to farms and farmers and understood how they were run.

Dairy NZ's Tim Mackle said some 12,000 dairy farmers were making a
Dairy NZ's Tim Mackle said some 12,000 dairy farmers were making a "significant effort" to fence off waterways. Photo / File

"Nowadays, there is probably less affinity and connection."

"That doesn't mean there isn't still plenty of genuine goodwill towards farmers and farming production from the majority of urban-dwellers."

He says the media could do more to highlight the work farmers are doing to clean up waterways in catchments still affected by poor decisions made many years ago.

Dairy NZ's Tim Mackle says some 12,000 dairy farmers are making a "significant effort" to fence off waterways, stop dairy cows entering streams, improve water quality through plantings and invest in new technology to manage dairy effluent.

Although criticism has been levelled at his sector - "and certainly some of it is fair and some unfair" - it has also steered focus toward what is an important issue for all Kiwis to think about.

"Fixing dairy alone", Mackle says, would "only fix part of our water quality challenges".


A much clearer issue is whether whoever takes water should have to pay for it.

A Water New Zealand survey suggests more than three-quarters of New Zealanders agreed there should be a cost when taking water from the environment for agriculture and horticulture - and the sentiment is consistent across town and country.

Irrigation New Zealand, another lobby group, isn't convinced over the value of a mooted water tax, which other countries have opted against in favour of a business income tax system.

In a growing number of areas, water allocation has reached or crossed sustainable limits. Photo / File
In a growing number of areas, water allocation has reached or crossed sustainable limits. Photo / File

"The profits made by those that use water are taxed – whether they be water-bottlers, food processors or irrigators," says Irrigation chief exective Andrew Curtis.

"If there are loopholes in New Zealand's current tax system that enable overseas entities to pay minimal business income tax, then this needs to be addressed."

In any case, Curtis says there is a range of possible pricing mechanisms, from markets through to a rate set by the network supplier or a tax set by the regulator.

"The Australian experience demonstrates scale is required for a water market to work, which New Zealand does not have," he says.

"There is some potential for markets to be established within New Zealand, particularly within irrigation infrastructure, but, to-date, irrigators have chosen to build storage and modernise their irrigation equipment to provide reliability rather than seek to purchase additional water from their neighbour."

He says his group sees a need for multi-purpose water storage options, including community dams, farm storage, and using wetlands to recharge groundwater.

"Both rural communities and our growing cities will need to use more stored water," Curtis said.

"It's also worthwhile thinking about the situation New Zealand would be in if we didn't have irrigation after extensive droughts this summer."

Almost all the fruit and vegetables in our supermarkets were grown with irrigation.

"Without irrigation the public would now be facing price spikes and food shortages."

Curtis says climate change will bring more frequent droughts, along with more intense rainfall and a shift in when we receive rain.

The upper North Island, for instance, will receive less spring rainfall over what is a critical growing period.

"We are not short of rainfall, but consideration needs to be given to providing the right amount of water at the right time and location, as well as preserving the health of our waterways."

But Forest and Bird's Cohen doesn't buy that argument.

"It may seem counter-intuitive, but expensive large-scale irrigation schemes often increase our exposure to climate change risk, rather than reduce it," she says.

"This is because when drought compromises the supply of that committed water, those who have invested in intensive farming suddenly see their investments at risk.

"Farmers then look to protect that investment by over-riding the environmental limits that protect the ecological health of our waterways."

Instead of committing more resources to irrigation schemes, Cohen says armers should be supported to become more innovative and resilient by changing the way they manage farming systems as they adapt to climate change.

"In the long term if we try to fight nature it is nature that is going to win," she says.

"The best way forward to protect our freshwater is to be smart and change how we farm by working with nature – not against it."