Thursday 11 September 2014

A Policy A Day: Cleaning Our Rivers

In the lead-up to the election, we are going to examine one policy per (working) day. We've selected policies to be as balanced as possible across a range of policy areas and across the political parties. The idea is to explain the background, analyse the policy to investigate the pros and cons, and give a verdict on the policy at the end. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. Also, I say 'we' because this series will feature some guest posts from other young people, to share their thoughts and ideas as well. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today's post is by Gina Yukich.

The policy:
As part of the National Party’s “Working for our Environment” policy, there are two elements that relate directly to the cleaning up of New Zealand rivers, lakes and aquifers.
- Implement robust national standards for water quality that will make a significant improvement to the way freshwater is managed
- Commit $350 million, a fivefold increase in funding, for lake and river clean-ups

In the media release from the Minister for the Environment, Amy Adams, there are admissions made by Nathan Guy, Minister for Primary Industries, that the policies work not only towards environment improvement, but also towards profitable primary industries. “Primary industries contribute more than 76 per cent of our merchandise exports and largely depend on freshwater, while tourism also relies on the beauty of New Zealand’s water bodies.” The implementation of this policy is intended to provide both environmental and economic benefits back to the community in the long term.

The Ministry for the Environment says that, by world standards, the water quality in New Zealand is generally good. However this doesn’t mean our rivers are healthy, or swimmable. In fact, 26% of our rivers are deteriorating from high levels of nitrate, 11% deteriorating from phosphate. Only 20% of our rivers are graded good quality for swimming, with 52% at poor or very poor quality. While this might be better than the world average, it leaves a lot to be desired.

When we talk about water quality, three overarching parameters are referred to; pathogens (disease causing bacteria), sediment, and nutrients. Pathogens enter the water mainly through human and animal waste contamination; sometimes this is natural, like a bird colony above a river bank. However, more often than not this contamination is a result of human activity or inactivity. After storms the overflow of sewerage systems can often contaminate rivers, or more commonly beaches. However, the largest cause of this kind of pollution is easily our dairy cows. Unfenced rivers allow cattle to defecate directly into the river, while rain runoff from fields will pick up the manure and wash it into streams.

While the pathogens in animal effluent can pose large risks to human health, the nutrients in the waste can pose a larger danger to the ecosystems they are getting washed into. Nitrogen and phosphorous are two nutrients that are essential to the life of organisms and animals, however in high levels they can cause eutrophication – a system of major water degradation involving large algae blooms, decreased oxygen levels and a hostile environment for aquatic animals. These changes in the growth patterns of waterways can be disastrous to the local organisms and can take decades or centuries to right themselves. Nitrogen and Phosphorous predominantly enter waterways through animal effluent and urine, fertilising of fields, and waste water from dairy factories and paper plants. They are expensive to manually remove from water systems.

Sediment, the last water quality factor has its own damaging impact on our water ways. Sediment enters streams and rivers through erosion of the land, particularly after storms and creates the turbid (cloudy) quality of the water. The erosion itself is a significant problem, but once in the water the sediment also damages the plants that grow in rivers, blocking the sunlight from reaching them. It also affects the fish and whitebait in the rivers by damaging their gills and making it harder to find food in the murky water.

Robust National Standards for Water Quality
What does this entail? Well, when looking at the release document for this policy “Delivering fresh water reform” there is a very detailed description of the current state of water quality in New Zealand, and a section near the end that talks about what efforts are currently being made, and what efforts are being planned for.

Robust national standards refers to the implementation of a scientific ‘bottom line’ for our water quality, based off 4 water states:
· State A – suitable for swimming
· State B – sometimes suitable for swimming
· State C – suitable for boating and wading (secondary contact)
· State D – unacceptable risk for human health

The new National Bottom Line for water quality is placed between C and D. This means that all rivers and lakes must meet the requirements for state C, ‘Suitable for boating and wading’ (but not for direct human contact with the water). These National Bottom line values have been created for a range of water quality parameters, including the presence of E. Coli, nitrates, phosphates, dissolved oxygen, etc. and a water source must be above the bottom line for each parameter to be considered acceptable.

These National Bottom Lines were proposed in the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) in 2013. They cover one of two factors – human health and ecosystem health depending on which parameter you are addressing (e.g. E. Coli or nitrate respectively). In the amendment document, there is a recognition that “The quality of most water bodies is already above the proposed bottom lines” and that the bottom line are mainly being implemented to provide “a degree of protection” for our rivers and lakes. The implementation of a National Bottom Line is meant to support the regional councils in their plans for water management. The councils are now required to set goals for the quality of water sources (they must aim for state C or higher) based upon the value that each water sources has for the community. It is expected the cost of preparation of regional plans will be reduced by the implementation of these standards.

So what do the bottom lines actually mean for our water quality? For ecosystem health parameters, the National Bottom Line is set at a point where 80% of organisms remain mostly unaffected by the water quality parameter being measured. The 20% of more sensitive organisms will experience impaired or altered growth patterns, but major, permanent water source damage will be avoided.

For human health parameters, the bottom line is set at a less than 5% risk of infection for secondary contact activities like boating and wading. If someone was to swim in or ingest the water, the risk would obviously be far greater, so these bottom lines don’t necessarily allow for completely clean rivers. The onus is placed on regional councils to set targets to improve water quality to states A and B which allow for swimming, but there is no requirement to do this.

Therefore these ‘robust standards’, for the most part, simply amount to better classifying of the data we are collecting and the creation of a nationally consistent standard for what is unacceptable in terms of water quality. This is completely necessary for New Zealand if we are ever to move towards a healthy and sustainable relationship with our rivers and lakes. To fix the problem you first need to quantify exactly what is wrong, and how badly.

However, though these national standards have been included as part of the National Party campaign’s environment policy, the amendments to the NPS-FM have already been agreed upon, and came into effect on the 1st of August 2014. With the national standards already in place, any promises the National Party makes from now on regarding water quality should be based around the implementation of the standards and the cleaning of the rivers themselves, otherwise they will be retrospectively making promises to complete a project that has already been carried out.

Comparison with other parties
- The Labour party has announced that their policy on the issue is to “ensure that all our rivers and lakes are swimmable, fishable and suitable for food gathering”. This would most likely be classed as state A quality, which they want to see in all rivers.
- The Green party share a similar policy to Labour, of making all rivers swimmable again.
- United Future has a policy to “Completely revise the National Policy Statement (NPS) on Freshwater Management” with the aim of setting more ambitious quality levels to improve the ecological health of the rivers
- NZ First have a policy to amend the NPS-FM to “recognize the value of wild and scenic rivers”.[4]
- Act, Internet Mana and the Conservative party had no visible policies on freshwater quality

Verdict: The National Party’s policies to provide robust standards for water quality is a good one, and a good first step. However the standards themselves are not ambitious and the bottom line that the regional councils have to meet for water quality is too low for swimming or safe food gathering. Not to mention, the policy has already basically been carried out. However National do deserve kudos for the $350m being sunk into the area. The Labour/Greens shared policy to make all freshwater sources swimmable again is almost too ambitious in my opinion, considering the nature of our nation as an agricultural one. I personally wish some middle ground could be found on the policies, where every regional council had to achieve some percentage of their freshwater bodies to be at state A and state B. Then the cows can continue [doing their business] in some streams, while our kids can play in others.

Gina is a 2nd year student studying a conjoint degree in Civil Engineering and a Bachelors of Arts in Political Studies and Spanish. She is left leaning, but politically neutral with no affiliations to political parties. Her interests lie in using engineering as a means to benefit societies, and mitigate damage from disasters.

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