Dr Mike Joy says working as an environmental scientist makes it difficult for him to be optimistic about the future of New Zealand's freshwater.

"I'm more into the acceptance phase of the seven stages of grief," says Mike, who has been a strong critic of the country's water quality over the years.

However things got just a little brighter when the government announced a revision of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and a new National Environmental Standard.

Environment Minister David Parker and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor announced on Monday that new rules will be in place by 2020 to stop degradation of freshwater quality. The government is promising a noticeable improvement in water quality within five years.


Mike has been named as a member of the Environment Ministry's science and technical advisory group that will oversee the science evidence for freshwater policy development. Its broad brief will be to provide science and technical advice on the Essential Freshwater work programme and other Ministry for the Environment work.

He said that while it was still early stages, the only way to achieve improved freshwater quality was to reduce farming intensity plus major land use change.

Speaking to the Taupo & Turangi Weekender, Mike says his talk in Taupo next week will be about what's happening with freshwater in New Zealand and the spin and coverups that go on to deny or deflect what is happening.

He says there is a real impetus on regional councils to "tell a happy story" about water quality.

"They put more effort into employing PR staff rather than scientists and talking up these supposed improvements and so you get the negative side of people like Federated Farmers saying we don't need to improve our freshwater.

"When they say 'I've fenced off 100 per cent of my streams', what they don't say is that it's 100 per cent of the streams that meet their definition of a stream, because anything smaller than their definition which is wider than a stride and deeper than a Red Band doesn't count, and yet we have the research saying that less than that's where 70 per cent of the contaminants come from.

"Any opportunity I have to point out what's going on with freshwater and what to believe and what not to believe and highlight the spin that happens and hopefully talk about the realities that we need to be aware of."

Mike says like climate change, the main answer lies in doing less.


"We could easily go back to no nitrate fertiliser and fix all our nitrogen from clover the way we used to but there's no money in it. Our problem is that the way we measure the economy and the way we think about it is based on growth. The economists have this system that's based on growth and they have trouble coping with systems that don't do that."

While projects to reduce the amount of nitrogen leaching into lakes Taupo and Rotorua have been lauded as examples of environmental protection, Mike has his doubts.

He praises the 'fence at the top of the cliff' approach, saying so much of New Zealand's approach to freshwater management is based on the ambulance at the bottom, but questions why people should have to be incentivised not to pollute.

"Where that's important for people to understand is that those two iconic lakes get special treatment where we actually pay farmers a huge amount of money not to leach pollutants into a lake. If we were to apply that same logic, we would be looking at $24 billion to have it happen for the country.

The other way of looking at that is that it's a direct subsidy of allowing farmers to pollute our rivers to the value of $24 billion per year, because that's how much damage they're doing that we are paying for."

Mike points to the success of initiatives such as Taupo Beef as examples of what can be done successfully when low-intensity land uses are encouraged and high-intensity land uses are charged for.

"That kind of approach is driven by doing the right thing for the land. Bad practice is just allowing dairy intensification because you don't charge for the impacts of it."

When it comes to freshwater quality, lakes are less of a problem than rivers at present, but in the long term, once their water quality has declined, lakes are much harder to return to health.

"Rivers are faster to fix because they are flowing all the time."

Mike says while he is pleased to have the opportunity to have input into the government's science and technical advisory group on policy, he says inevitably compromises will be made.

"Over the years I've had my heart broken too many times by politicians to fall for them again but they're definitely saying the right things."

Expert on water to speak

Lakes and Waterways Action Group host Dr Mike Joy will present Freshwater policy failures; a freshwater ecologist's view on Thursday, October 18.

Mike recently joined Victoria University's Institute for Governance and Policy Studies in Wellington after many years as senior lecturer in ecology and environmental science at Massey University.

After seeing first-hand the decline in freshwater health, Mike became an outspoken advocate for environmental protection.

His work at the interface of science and policy aims to strengthen connections between science, policy and real outcomes to address multiple environmental issues facing New Zealand.

As well as receiving a number of awards, Mike has published numerous papers in scientific journals, many international, articles and op-eds for newspapers and magazines.

He has written reports for regional councils and Ministry for the Environment, and developed a number of bioassessment tools and associated software used by many North Island regional councils.

All are welcome to attend his presentation at 5.30 pm at Lake Taupo Rotary Club, 12 Story Pl.