When people have headed for an Auckland beach on some of the sweltering days this summer and found it under a "water quality alert", they are rightfully angry. It has happened at some of the most popular beaches, such as Milford and Takapuna. Suddenly a problem than has been around far too long, but usually reported when the weather is not so hot, becomes starkly apparent — and a solution urgent.

But the problem is not confined to Auckland and beaches, it is apparent in lakes, rivers and streams throughout the country, as our Review investigation today explains. The problem is water quality and its comparative neglect in a country that likes to present a fresh and clean environment to the world. Environmentalists have been warning us for years it is not so, that intensive dairy farming is fouling streams and rivers with nitrates that cause algal blooms, killing other aquatic life and making the rivers unsuitable for swimming.

Unswimmable rivers might not seem a problem in northern regions where beaches are far more popular but further south, rivers do provide good swimming and picnic spots. The campaign for "swimmable rivers" was highly effective in last year's election campaign and it is surprising the new Government is not moving faster to respond.

Its problem seems to be NZ First. While Labour and the Greens campaigned strongly on water quality, NZ First was looking for votes in the farming regions. When the coalition was formed it managed to stop Labour introducing a tax on irrigation as a means of reducing run-off to waterways. But that is not the only, or best, way to protect freshwater from cattle effluent. The tax would have hit horticulture unnecessarily, and horticulture is one of the alternative uses of land that is carrying too many cows.


Farmers resented the blame laid on them in the election campaign, pointing out the efforts they were making to control run-off by fencing and planting stream banks and containing effluent. They asked whether cities such as Auckland are doing enough to reduce the pollution of their creeks, harbours and coasts. It is a fair question.

Auckland has known for at least 40 years its sewage and stormwater systems on older parts of the isthmus were prone to overload in heavy rain and pollute outflows to the sea. Citizens are still waiting for a solution. Now they face a special rate to pay for a sewerage separation project that will take another 10 years. It cannot come soon enough.

Warnings against swimming are bad enough, warnings against drinking a municipal water supply are intolerable. After the gastro outbreak in Havelock North an inquiry into nationwide drinking water standards estimated that up to 100,000 New Zealanders every year might be falling ill from their tap water. A surprising number of smaller communities have thought their aquifers so pure they do not need to chlorinate their supply.

All this is happening as we face climate change bring the prospect of hotter, drier conditions and heavier downpours from greater evaporation rates. It means water may be more scarce some of the time and causing severe flooding more frequently. Scarcity means allocating water more efficiently, probably by charges or taxes and that raises the sensitive Treaty question of who owns it.

No wonder the Government is treading cautiously in water issues but the problems will not wait. We need decisions now.