NZ Farmer - Swimmable rivers not just a rural issue, agriculture minister says

Written by Esther Taunton

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor doesn't accept the Government's freshwater quality targets are unattainable but says the whole country needs to do better to make it happen.  

The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management has set a goal of having 90 per cent of rivers and lakes "swimmable" by 2040.

A swimmable lake or river has a low level of E.coli, which is used as an indicator of the risk to human health.

Currently 72 per cent of the nation's rivers and lakes are classed as swimmable, with less than 260 E.coli per 100 millilitres.  

At the Taranaki Federated Farmers annual meeting, O'Connor was questioned over why the allowable E.coli level had been set "almost impossibly low", despite some international definitions of swimmable being above 500 E.coli per 100ml.

"I don't accept that it's impossible to get to that level," he said.

"We want swimmable over a generation and what I know about farmers is that we can pretty much do anything if we're given clear guidelines and the time to adapt.

"I think that on the basis that we want to have a reputation that is better than the US and the UK and matches the rhetoric around our marketing, then I think that we can get on and do it and still have very profitable farms."

In this month's budget, the Government committed $5m over four years to upgrading the nutrient management tool Overseer.  The funding would be used to broaden the range of land types and farming systems covered by the software and fund development of a more user-friendly interface, ultimately helping farmers adopt environmentally friendly farm practices faster.

"We can do this, we've just got to allow people, through the exchange of knowledge and practices, to move in that direction," O'Connor said.

"Back in the 80s, they would've said that you couldn't farm without subsidies but we have and we've succeeded and done really well."

"We've got to be reasonable and that's why regional councils do adapt their policies according to their local environments and they should.  Not the bottom lines but how you get there."

However, water quality was not just a rural issue and urban communities would have to do better as well, O'Connor said.

"You go around Auckland and every time it rains you can't swim at the beaches. We know that there are still many communities that don't have proper sewerage systems and so they dump it out," he said.

"In fact, councils get 35-year resource consents to dump sewage in times of excess rainfall. We all have to do better."

Taranaki-King Country MP Barbara Kuriger agreed, saying the country would need to pull together to meet the targets.

"Councils have put it off for a long time because it's going to cost them a lot of money and so farmers have been easy targets," she said.

"That doesn't let us off the hook but it just means that we're all in it together."

The target covers the length of rivers over 0.4m deep and the perimeters of lakes greater than 1.5km, which total 54,000km.  To meet the target by 2040, an extra 10,000km of lakes and rivers will need to become swimmable - or 400km extra each year.