Spinning into a freshwater grave

PR obfuscation and denial ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous achieve nothing and only limit the chances of necessary environmental change occurring, writes Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Mike Joy

Once again we are witnessing the summer epidemic of no-swim warnings in popular lakes, rivers and beaches throughout New Zealand. Every year the number of warnings and closures grows, and now no region seems immune. The debacle has not gone unnoticed by international media and it represents a real threat to New Zealand’s image with overseas tourists and consumers of our products.

This did not just happen. It needed decades of failure by central and regional authorities and policy-makers to halt the pollution of our freshwaters for us to reach this point. The level of publicity these swimming bans receive in the media underscores Kiwis’ rising sensitivity to the plight of freshwaters. In a recent poll 82 percent of New Zealanders were either “extremely or very concerned” about freshwater pollution.

So do we get apologies, admissions of responsibility or a commitment to make changes from our regulators or the organisations representing the big polluters? Of course not. What we get is obfuscation, spin and denial ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Land Air Water Aotearoa (LAWA) is the entity developed by regional councils and the Ministry for the Environment to collate and make available data on water quality. It recently put out a media release claiming that our swimming sites were mostly good except when it rains. This is like an airline saying the wings mostly don’t fall off their planes except for when there's turbulence.

Contaminants mostly get into waterways when it rains. This is the exact time when the protections our waterways are meant to have are meaningfully tested. Councils are meant to enforce regulations and consent conditions, so that pathogens are kept out of waterways: if you let things get to a position where any serious rain means contaminants end up in the water, you’ve failed the test. To claim the test itself is the problem is both laughable and offensive. It’s a classic obfuscation move.

Another ridiculous response came from DairyNZ, which ran an advertisement in the New Zealand Herald suggesting that people could help water quality by doing things like sweeping their driveways and not washing cars. Less than 1 percent of the length of waterways in New Zealand are in urban catchments, and DairyNZ represents the industry responsible for the lion’s share of nutrient pollution of New Zealand lowland waterways. The ad was clearly more about deflecting blame than any genuine attempt to improve water quality.

Land Air Water Aotearoa recently put out a media release claiming that our swimming sites were mostly good except when it rains. This is like an airline saying the wings mostly don’t fall off their planes except for when there's turbulence.

Further obfuscation came from the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) response to public complaints about massive algal proliferation of lowland waterways and river mouths. TRC director of environmental quality Gary Bedford was reported as saying algae was essential for aquatic ecosystems to grow and thrive. This statement is undoubtedly true, but the residents weren’t complaining about natural healthy levels. They were complaining about massive algal blooms.

Excessive algae or blooms, far from being essential, are in fact extremely harmful to freshwater ecosystems. They drive oxygen fluctuations that most aquatic organisms cannot survive. The final quote from Bedford was that if algae was obvious it was not necessarily a concern as the next heavy rain would flush it away. The problem is that by then the damage will have been done.

There has been a significant increase in communications staffing levels in both central and local government. DairyNZ is also upping its PR game with recent announcements of the appointment of a high profile public relations company owner as an independent director. So we are probably going to get more spin, much of it paid for with public funds. It achieves nothing and only limits the chances of the necessary change occurring.

The real central issue here is the failure of central and local government to stop the decline of freshwaters. Urban waterways and beaches are polluted because of failing and poorly maintained sewage and stormwater infrastructure. Rural waterways in pasture catchments are impacted by excess nutrient and pathogen runoff and sedimentation. The lack of meaningful water ecosystem health measurement and appropriate limits on contamination is exacerbated by a lack of enforcement. What this means is that the summer swimming warnings will continue to increase.

This is not just a recreational issue. It is a threat to our clean green image: the most important value-add we have for tourism and exports. A recent headline in the South China Morning Post slammed a booming dairy farming industry and mass tourism taking its toll on the environment in New Zealand. We are getting into very dangerous territory. Immediate strong action from the Government is needed to turn around the decline and stop the spin.

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