Freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy isn't known for holding back when it comes to the state of our lakes and rivers. He shares his views with Jamie Morton on the current state of play, along with some of the themes of his just-published book: From Mountains to Sea: Solving New Zealand's Freshwater Crisis.

How would you describe the big picture of freshwater quality in New Zealand today? Any differently than you would have, say, five years ago?

Water quality continues to worsen, and this is not surprising as we keep adding cows and "developing" more land.

A great example many people will have observed is the massive pine-to-dairy land-use conversions seen in Wairakei and North Canterbury.

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There are many good things happening as people try to mitigate impacts - riparian plantings, creating wetlands and more – but look at the massive scale of those land-use conversions.

Small incremental improvements can gain us a few per cent here or there, but they will never have a hope of achieving a net gain until we stop intensification.

What types of waterways are most at risk and why: why do we see the worst quality in lowland and urban systems?

The waterways most at risk are simply those with the highest proportion of developed catchment.

It is important to note that while urban waterways are often the most impacted, they are less than one per cent of the length of our waterways, while pasture catchments make up 40 per cent.

So the urban waterways are worst off, sure, but the rural ones are where the real damage is being done, simply because there's so much more of them.

The degradation we see in rivers and lakes is a result of excess nutrients, sediment and pathogens.

It is a cumulative catchment proportion issue; more intensive farms, cleared hillsides and or cities in the catchment, the bigger the problems.

In the opening of your new book, you broadly describe the freshwater space as a series of battles mostly lost. Have there been any positives to speak of? Can you cite any particular success stories? State-owned Pamu, for instance, has been making some notable strides around sustainability.

The success stories are there but are small and on the periphery.

Yes, the Pamu story is good but it could be much better if not for the restriction of having a Government shareholder expecting short-term returns.

Other great examples like the Merino New Zealand–Icebreaker story and Taupo Beef are positive.

They give great returns for producers through good positive stories linking environmental and animal welfare improvements to products.

For these brands and others, adding additional value by utilising the New Zealand clean, green image is a win-win for all.

What would you say are the key questions that researchers like yourself are urgently still trying to answer, across science and policy? And why is it, you argue, that fewer cows is the ultimate solution to most of them?

The science is relatively well settled but there are many policy challenges.

One big one is the conundrum of land value being tied to pollution and water rights.

At present, doing the right thing, such as reducing nutrients and pathogen losses, means that capital value is eroded – obviously a complete disincentive.

Thus, decoupling the land value from pollution and water rights is crucial.

My argument for reducing intensity - which in our case mostly means reducing cow numbers - is that in doing so we fix many issues in one change, as opposed to trying to fix each of the issues independently.

Each issue tackled independently is expensive and difficult, whereas the multiple gains from reducing intensity is in many cases cost neutral to farmers.

Do you feel the way New Zealand currently monitors and reports on freshwater quality is adequate? Are we using the right indicators and is the system properly figured well enough to give accurate snapshots?

I can simply describe freshwater quality assessment and analysis in New Zealand as "measuring the wrong things the wrong way by institutions reporting on themselves".

Thus, it is doomed to fail, and it does.

"At present, doing the right thing, such as reducing nutrients and pathogen losses, means that capital value is eroded - obviously a complete disincentive." Photo / File

I would need a book to explain properly and I tried that with my first book - Polluted Inheritance.

Essentially the regional councils collect the data and choose the sites to report on their own performance.

Thus, they are incentivised to not choose the sites that make them look bad.

Then they publish the results through Land and Water Aotearoa (LAWA) webpages and in their own reports, with no independence in collection or reporting.

Furthermore, the measures themselves are flawed in many ways and have not changed since the 1990s when water was less important to the public and technology was much more limited.

The Land and Water Forum has more or less suspended itself after recommending a series of actions to the Government – but it notably couldn't come to an agreement on nutrient allocations. Do you have any confidence that this collaborative, cross-sector approach to policy actually works, or do you feel hard-nosed regulation is the only way to address the issues?

Human behaviour only changes when the laws are strict and well enforced.

I think history has shown this in many fields; a good example is road policing.

Having said that, I can see that consumer choice can force change on damaging industries and there are signs of that happening, with Merino NZ and Taupo Beef as exemplars.

The freshwater debate is often seen as one between city-dwellers and the farming community. A recent survey suggested otherwise, finding concern about freshwater was fairly high across the board. Do you feel we need to move on from this notion of an urban-rural divide?

Yes, we should move on and face the fact that this is a problem for all, not one sector or another.

However, I think the rural-urban divide is largely the result of rural media that pose as newspapers but are actually advertising brochures for the agriculture industry.

They paint a rosy picture of farming intensity and demonise anyone questioning it or highlighting problems for future generations.

The book has also shared the Māori perspective on the issue. Do you feel the views of tangata whenua has been overlooked in the public debate?

In my experience despite much legislation appearing to require Māori participation, the reality is that it is very rare for real involvement or any examples of a Māori world-view included in decision-making around freshwater protection.

In the public debate the Māori view is more often than not missing.

If we did everything we conceivably could right now to try to reverse degradation of our freshwater estate, would widespread restoration be a possibility? Or is this - in spite of bold goals recently set by the Government - somewhat of a fantasy, given the legacy of generations of pollution?

Reversing the degradation will be a big task, however there are some low-hanging fruit - particularly with out-of-pipe pollution - that could be addressed quickly.

The bigger diffuse pollution problems will take a long time to fix.

It depends on soil quality and other things, so it varies from place to place – years in some place, decades in others.

Regardless of natural delays, we have waited far too long to make the necessary steps for a sustainable future for all New Zealanders.

Mountains to Sea: Solving New Zealand's Freshwater Crisis (Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2018).