Freshwater crisis needs stronger government action

New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and freshwater are in crisis and there needs to be a more ambitious Government plan to clean them up and protect against nitrate contamination, the Green Party says. 

Our Freshwater 2023 released today by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ shows the declining health of much of New Zealand’s freshwater and is a clear call to action. 

“Everyone should be able to swim in and take Kai from clean, healthy rivers and drink water without fear of becoming sick. Right now the health of our rivers, lakes and aquifers is declining and the Government is not doing enough to change that,” says the Green Party’s environment spokesperson, Eugenie Sage.

“Thousands of us remember growing up swimming in local creeks and rivers. Today’s report is yet another reminder that in many parts of the country, people can no longer do that or take kai without risking their health and wellbeing. 

“Not only are too many of our lakes and rivers unswimmable, many of the native freshwater fish species that depend on clean rivers, lakes, wetlands, and estuaries are also threatened with extinction. 

“Our waterways are burdened with nitrate and faecal pollution from intensified agriculture, sedimentation from activities such as forestry and urban subdivision, and irrigators taking too much water being taken from rivers and aquifers.

“Following decades of advocacy by the Greens, environmental organisations and iwi and hāpu, the Government finally stepped up in 2020 and strengthened the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management. But the pace of change needs to be faster and much more ambitious.

“With more Green Ministers in the next Government we can take action to restore our lakes, rivers and wetlands and protect our aquifers so people and freshwater species can thrive. This includes tightening the rules on synthetic fertiliser use and intensive land use to reduce nitrate pollution of drinking water. We have always been very clear that what we do on land affects our water.

“Intensive farming, including the use of synthetic fertiliser, poor land use controls on earthworks for urban subdivision and poor stormwater management continue to be major causes of water pollution. The Government needs to progressively phase out synthetic fertiliser use, implement the intensive winter grazing rules, and increase support for regenerative farming practices to reduce nutrient pollution and sediment run-off. 

“With more than 4,200 reported overflows of wastewater over a two year period due in large part to wet weather events, we need much better stormwater is management. Combined stormwater and sewer systems lead to overflows and sewage on beaches. The Green Party has been very clear that managing stormwater needs to stay as the responsibility of local councils because of the connection between land use and stormwater volumes and quality.

“The Green Party is the only party with a plan to protect our precious freshwater and ensure future generations have access to clean rivers and lakes they can swim in, gather kai from, and drink from,” says Eugenie Sage.

Key data and findings from Our Freshwater 2023 include:

  • Nearly half (45 percent) of Aotearoa New Zealand’s total river length was not suitable for activities like swimming between 2016 and 2020 based on Campylobacter infection risk.
  • 68% of indigenous freshwater birds were threatened with extinction or at risk of becoming threatened in 2021.
  • It is estimated that only 10 percent of our historic wetlands remain, despite these being vital for the survival of many threatened plants and animals.
  • 19% of monitored groundwater sites failed to meet the nitrate-nitrogen standards for drinking water at least once between 2014 and 2018, and trends were worsening at 35% of sites between 2009 and 2018.
  • 68% of monitored groundwater sites failed to meet E.Coli drinking water standards on at least one occasion between 2014 and 2018 and 50% of trends in these sites were worsening between 2009 and 2018.

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