Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.
Thank you for the invitation to speak today.
It’s great to see so many here working on this hugely difficult environmental challenge of diffuse pollution of water.
And wonderful to see that so many of you have travelled to our little country at the bottom of the world.
Europeans began to settle here about 150 years ago.
Their arrival triggered very rapid changes in the physical and natural environment.
And I decided in speaking to you today I would look at these changes from a water quality perspective.
A history of water quality in New Zealand.
Not a history of water quality research – that I am certainly not equipped to do in front of this audience of water quality gurus.
What I will describe is once-over lightly and certainly not scholarly.
But I’m thinking about many of you here – perhaps jetlagged and needing a little time for your brains to warm up.
And in choosing what to speak to you about, I thought that a brief history of New Zealand through a water quality lens might serve as an introduction to this country that many of you are visiting for the first time.
But before I get into talking about water quality, I want to take a moment to explain my role briefly – because it is rather unusual.
I am what is known as an Officer of Parliament.
The Auditor-General and the Ombudsmen are the other Officers of Parliament.
We are appointed not by the Minister of the day but by Parliament.
This means that while I am a public servant, I do not work for the Government, but for Parliament as a whole.
And most importantly, this means that I am politically independent.
My functions are described in legislation very broadly.
My favorite function is to “investigate any matter which in the Commissioner’s opinion, the environment may be or has been adversely affected”.
Legislation doesn’t get any more permissive than this.
There is a new function possibly coming my way, around an environment reporting role.
This has been flagged as a possibility for some time – but looks now to be gaining momentum.
Given this potential very significant change to my role, we did some serious thinking about it in the office and last year I released a report titled “How clean is New Zealand?’
The Minister for the Environment has now released a discussion paper proposing that I (and those that follow me in this role) be given responsibility for producing a State of the Environment report for New Zealand, every five years.
Surprisingly, this is the only country in the OECD that does not have regular state of the environment reporting required through legislation.
Regular reporting at the national level, that is.
And yet we market ourselves abroad as the clean green country.
When I think about taking on this reporting function, I do quail when I think of reporting on water.
There is so much physical diversity in this country – so many catchments, so many subcatchments, so many rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers.
And so many differences between them.
Generalising so as to say something useful at the national level is a huge challenge.
Albeit an exciting one.
Water quality has become a major issue in NZ in recent years.
That’s not surprising considering how vital water is.
As I look back through my lifetime I see different environmental issues rising and falling in the consciousness of the public.
And sometimes I worry that there is rather too much of an element of fashion.
People may tire of one issue, so it may seem less important regardless of whether or not it has been adequately addressed.
At one time NZers worried a great deal about erosion and loss of topsoil.
About overclearing of forests – and overgrazing by sheep.
At another time, about the chewing out of the forest canopy by possums introduced from Australia – a huge pest here, but protected in their country of origin.
At another, about covering the country with a single species of tree all descended – so I’m told -- from six individual trees off the coast of California.
I’m referring to Monterey pine – pinus radiata – it grows really fast here.
At another time about the contamination left behind from hundreds of small operations treating that pine with arsenic and copper and other nasty things.
And about the DDT from dipping sheep into a potent brew of insecticide and fungicide on thousands of farms.
And in the 70s and 80s after the creation of OPEC and the oil price shocks, like every other country, we worried about energy.
And now of course, it’s climate change.
At any given time, it seems that one environmental issue becomes number one in the eyes of the public and the media.
And now, it’s water quality’s time.
Understandably because it has become so controversial.
On the one hand, we are told that everything is fine.
And on the other, we are told that everything is going to hell in a handbasket.
So I find it really interesting to view water quality in its historical context.
And here’s my take on the water quality history of New Zealand.
This country is not only geologically young, but young in terms of human habitation.
Tangata whenua – the people of the land -- the first people – Maori -- have been here about 700 years.
Maori have a special relationship with rivers.
When Maori introduce themselves, part of that introduction is to say this is my river.
This is my river – my awa.
I must tell you what my awa is because it is central to my identity.
Ko au te awa
Ko te awa ko au
I am the river.
The river is me.
My forebears -- Europeans -- began to settle here about 150 years ago into an environment that was completely alien.
Where they certainly had no relationship with particular rivers.
Rivers were to be feared because they were not bridged.
For a time drowning was known as the New Zealand death.
The arrival of Europeans triggered rapid change in the physical and natural environment.
This is a country which has never been heavily industrialised.
What our economy has been and still is, is largely based on using natural resources.
An economy heavily dependent on exporting.
So changes in the international prices paid for timber, coal, wool, milk powder and so on can trigger rapid changes in land use.
And this has a flow on effect on water – the way it is used and what happens to its quality.
While concern about water quality is really high now, it’s not new.
But the nature of that concern has changed over the decades.
When Europeans came to New Zealand, most of it was still covered with dense forest despite early burning of bush by Maori.
A very different forest from those in the Northern Hemisphere.
Temperate rainforest, thick with ferns, mosses, and undergrowth.
Our native trees are evergreen.
The early settlers homesick for Mother England put imaginary deciduous trees into paintings of the forest and added mist because the strong clear light of the Antipodes unsettled them.
And they began to change the land cover – to fell native trees for timber.
And heavy rainfall started to wash away topsoil and carry sediment into rivers.
In the 1860s we had a gold rush – a wave of goldminers rolled on from California to Australia to New Zealand.
Hundreds of rivers were declared to be watercourses for disposing of mine tailings.
Miners had greater rights over the use of rivers as sinks for their waste than farmers had for using the water for irrigation.
The gold rush meant what it says – people rushing in fast to towns, and out to the goldfields.
My great grandfather was one of them.
The result was raw sewage, bacteria and disease.
One learned gentleman querying how healthy the new colony was wrote:
“Typhoid, sometimes recognized and very often not, goes by many names, e.g., colonial fever, low fever, gastric or bilious fever, blood poisoning, swamp fever, etc. It is a pity that this disease is not called by the graphic name “filth” fever. It spreads so much because New Zealand colonists have scant objection to drinking diluted sewage or having reeking cesspits either directly under or close to their houses. Of this disease no more need be said; deaths and illness from it should not be charged against the climate or soil, but rather to the folly of the people.”
More elaboration would make you squeamish.
One particularly alarming folly occurred on a large scale in Auckland where “night soil” – a polite way of describing what it really was – was collected from cesspools and privies across the city and dumped just above the springs that supplied the city with water
Later when sewage went into pipes rather than carts, the pipes took the sewage into rivers and the sea.
That lake outside this building today was one of only two lakes to receive sewage directly.
I did wonder if your conference is being held here because the most significant example of accelerated eutrophication in the country is right here.
Incidentally, in preparing for this address, someone gave me a paper containing early research on the eutrophication of Lake Rotorua.
By early, I mean 1969.
The paper is appropriately written by a Dr G Fish.
The gold mining boom had a bigger effect on water quality than contributing to town filth and water-borne disease.
Sluicing – directing jets of water on to gravel slopes and separating out the heavier gold through gravity – meant large amounts of sediment went into rivers.
In the north crushing quartz to extract gold meant tailings that had to go somewhere.
In 1891, Parliament passed a law providing for the Governor General to declare certain rivers to be sludge channels for the disposal of mine tailings.
The clear gravel-bottomed Ohinemuri River in the Coromandel was declared to be a such a sludge channel and about 12 million tons of toxic sediment was dumped into it over a period of nearly 60 years right up to within my lifetime.
Actually up to when I was three years old, but I’m not going to tell you what year that was.
That’s not the only instance when laws were passed to enable the dumping of waste into rivers.
Another one in 1954 legalised the disposal of pulp and paper wastes into the Kawerau River.
And that did not change until the 1990s.
Another point source of water pollution in the 19th and early 20th centuries was flax milling.
As many as 300 flax mills stripped the leaves of native flax to produce fibre for ropes and woolpacks.
This was an unsophisticated colony – flax wasn’t being used to make fine linen.
And the waste that went into local waterways was hardly dilute – a third was rotting solids that smelt to high heaven.
The sewage problem hasn’t gone away with towns along rivers and coasts still discharging sewage that is only partially treated into water.
But flax mills have gone, along with some of the other early dirty point source polluters such as fellmongeries and tanneries that are no more.
Or are unrecognisably altered.
But back to the past.
It was not just sewage, industry and gold that affected water quality, but the changing way in which we used the land.
Sheep joined gold as a major part of the economy of the South Island.
Vast flocks of Merino sheep prized for their toughness and fine wool created a landed gentry in the high country particularly in the province of Canterbury.
The Victorian novelist Samuel Butler was for a time one of these high country sheep farmers.
He went there to put as much distance as he could between himself and his family in England.
Frustrated by the challenges of farming in such an alien environment, Butler described the giant snow tussock as “an unhappy looking grass, if grass it be”.
So the snow tussock and other “unhappy grasses” were burned so sheep could graze on more palatable vegetation.
The mountains of the South Island that form the backdrop to these high country farms are jagged, not smoothed, and so subject to a high rate of natural erosion.
I couldn’t resist putting this photo to show you how beautiful natural erosion can be.
Lake Tekapo – the colour is due to fine sediment carved from rock by glaciers.
The sediment is so fine, it is called glacial flour.
But the transition into a pastoral country has greatly accelerated natural erosion.
And of course that means loss of topsoil into rivers.
High wool prices incentivised overgrazing.
Exacerbated by plagues of rabbits.
We brought in stoats to deal to the rabbits.
Unfortunately the stoats decided they preferred our native birds and left the pasture for our forests.
And the rabbits are still with us – breeding like rabbits.
Elsewhere the felling of native forests for timber continued, chiefly in the North Island.
In 1882, a highly significant technological breakthrough – refrigeration -- led to another big economic change.
And consequently a huge change in land use.
The ship called Dunedin departed from the city of Dunedin bound for London with a cargo of frozen meat.
And with the ability to sell far more meat than people in the young colony could eat, pasture became more valuable than timber.
Sheep numbers began to climb in most of the country with mutton and lamb now able to be exported, along with wool.
Forests were burned and settlers began to sow seed among stumps that had scarcely stopped smoking.
In the last decade of the 19th century, native forest was reduced by a quarter.
And of course, as the forests were felled, the soil washed away fast on steep hillsides into gullies and streams.
And the new pasture did not remain fertile for long.
Refrigerated export meant that butter could be exported as well as meat.
Kahikatea trees – native trees that can grown up to 80 metres high were felled to make boxes for butter and cheese.
Because this light clean wood didn’t taint the butter.
Thousands of hectares of lowland kahikatea forests were cleared.
As an aside, although about a third of this country is conservation land, lowland forests are under-represented.
And the felling of these kahikatea forests allowed for the creation of even more pasture.
Refrigerated export also meant that abattoirs multiplied and discharged blood and guts and other unmentionables into rivers.
To this day New Zealanders don’t describe places where animals are turned into meat as abattoirs.
We call them freezing works because the great bulk of the meat was frozen and exported.
The end of World War 1 saw another big round of burning forest and replacing it with pasture.
Over 10,000 soldiers returning from Europe were given government assistance to buy and develop land.
Many of these farms were on high steep hill country.
More burning, more erosion, more sediment into rivers.
We found a film of this burning accompanied by loud triumphant music and a voice extolling the brave new world, but I decided to not inflict that on you.
Many of these farms did not survive – they were too remote and soil that had not washed away was poor.
One notable case of government optimism in the 1930s was building what became known as the Bridge to Nowhere in the middle of the bush.
The intent was to build roads to it, but that never happened.
I’m told that the Bridge to Nowhere has a twin known locally as the Bridge to Somewhere.
More land was provided to soldiers returning from World War 2.
By then grass could be sown from the air and there were plenty of pilots keen to keep flying.
By 1949, lime and superphosphate were also being dropped from planes.
And as this audience will realise, that meant eroded soil carried more phosphate down gullies and into streams.
We weren’t generally adding nitrogen because the basis of the pastoral economy was ryegrass and white clover – clover to fix the nitrogen.
So from point sources and pathogens, to erosion and sediment, and now nutrients.
For many decades we were a country of sheep.
It has been viewed as a kind of colonial quirkiness.
But something has happened over the last few years.
From a peak of 23 sheep each 30 years ago, we now have only 8 each.
I hope none of you are confused by this.
For some years I lived in the United States and would be asked about sheep.
After a while I realised that when I responded, people were thinking we each had 20 or so sheep in our back yards.
It was also 30 years ago that a plant was built and started to produce urea from natural gas from the Kapuni gas field in Taranaki .
This enabled farmers to apply nitrogen fertiliser when and where it is wanted – rather than being dependent on nitrogen-fixing legumes.
And now with the rapid growth of irrigation, grass can now be grown almost at will.
And the way for farming to be profitable now is through dairy farming.
The times have been tough for many beef and sheep farmers.
This tiny country is the world’s largest exporter of dairy products.
30% of the dairy products that cross national borders come from here.
In the last 30 years the number of dairy cows has doubled and I am sure the milk produced from each cow has risen greatly.
And unlike beef cattle, dairy cows are farmed on lowlands because they need to be handy for milking.
And daily milking means lots of nutrition.
At the beginning of this talk I said that water quality is at the top of many people’s minds when they think environment.
Much of this concern has been triggered by what has become known as “dirty dairying”.
Government and farmers are responding in many ways.
Riparian strips are being planted, streams are being fenced, dairy shed effluent is increasingly being sprayed on land.
Many millions of dollars are being invested to reduce the flow of nutrients into Lake Rotorua.
And many more to protect our largest lake, Lake Taupo, in the middle of the North Island.
The Government set up a Land and Water Forum last year, seeking to find a collaborative way ahead, and this led to a report containing many recommendations.
Last week the Government announced that the Forum will start to work on setting limits on water quality and allocation.
But none of this is easy for a small country that relies heavily on exports.
There are two big industries in this country – tourism and dairy farming.
Tourism has been hit by the global recession so please spend lots of money while you are here.
The second has not – the demand for milk powder from Asian countries continues to be strong.
At the beginning of this talk I said that the importance of different environmental issues rise and fall in the consciousness of the public.
And indeed the media.
That I worry that there is rather too much of an element of fashion.
That people may tire of one issue, so it may seem less important regardless of whether or not it has been adequately addressed.
I then walked you through a high level and admittedly superficial history of water quality in New Zealand.
From pathogens and disease to erosion and sediment to today’s nutrient problem that is attracting so much attention.
It’s crucial to remember that all three remain with us.
Your conference is about diffuse pollution.
But we still have here point sources that need improvement – inadequately treated sewage from towns, discharges from freezing works, breweries, pulp and paper mills.
These have been vastly improved, but we should not assume for a moment that all is well.
One problem is point sources of effluent being turned into diffuse sources of pathogens and nutrients when sprayed too thickly on to wet land.
Then there’s the sediment problem.
While I absolutely acknowledge the seriousness of the nitrogen problem, I am concerned that I don’t hear a lot about stopping gullies being cleared.
Or the need to replant erosion-prone slopes to stop sediment being washed into streams by heavy rain.
Sediment that not only reduces clarity, increases turbidity, allows footholds for pest plants, but carries in the bulk of the phosphorus.
Waiting for the addition of nitrogen to grow plants, and then along with pathogens reduce dissolved oxygen to levels low enough to threaten the creatures that live in the water.
And sediment is topsoil that is being lost.
We want fertile land, not fertile rivers and lakes.
Water quality science is complex and not widely understood.
And complexity is hard to deal with.
It’s easier to tell a simple story of conflict – about who is right and who is wrong.
Changes that really improve water quality must be built on understanding and communicating that complexity.
You are here to develop that understanding.
Those who use it and communicate it – like I must in my role – are grateful.