19 June 2015

Environment Commissioner warns water quality is “not out of the woods yet”

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, today released two reports on water quality, calling for further steps to safeguard the quality of New Zealand’s fresh water.

“To its credit, the Government has invested heavily in developing policy to improve the management of fresh water,” said Dr Wright.  “The 2014 National Policy Statement is a major step forward. Some regional councils have already begun to act and there is a real sense of momentum.”

 “But we are not out of the woods yet. Some lakes and streams are below bottom lines and many others are not far above them. And in many places, water quality continues to decline.”

 Dr Wright says that ongoing conversion of land to dairy farming is resulting in increases in nutrient pollution of waterways. On land, nitrogen and phosphorus are valuable nutrients, but in water they can cause excessive growth of weeds, slime, and algae.

 She recommends that regional councils prioritise the protection of vulnerable water bodies and catchments. 

“Water bodies that are vulnerable or subject to particular pressure should be considered first. Otherwise, the difficulty and cost of restoring them will be that much greater. Also, it’s unfair if landowners are left to make decisions on how to use and develop their land when water policy and regulation remain uncertain.”

 Dr Wright’s report points to five other areas that need attention when the Government reviews its policy next year. 

“Currently, regional councils are allowed to degrade some waterways and compensate by improving others – the unders and overs approach.  We should be, and can be, more aspirational than this. Of course, some waterways may get worse before they get better, but that is no reason to set our sights low.” 

Another issue is the omission of estuaries from the policy.

“Estuaries are not currently covered by the policy, although they are particularly vulnerable because of their location at the bottom of catchments”, said Dr Wright. “Estuaries are home to many shellfish, wading birds and juvenile fish like snapper, eels and whitebait, and should not be ignored.”

 “The Government’s review of its water quality policy next year is an opportunity to ensure that it will actually lead to better water quality in our rivers and streams, our lakes and estuaries and groundwater.”

The Commissioner’s report on the Government’s 2014 National Policy Statement for managing fresh water is available here. Click here to view a set of frequently asked questions.

The update of her 2013 report Water quality in New Zealand: Land use and nutrient pollution is available here.

ENDS

For more information please contact:

Dan Ormond - 027 251 9849