Ruined Rivers a National Disgrace

Opinion by Ken Sims,
Life member NZ Federation Freshwater Anglers.
The recently published article showing 65 percent of our rivers are “unswimmable” in a country of just 5 million people, should remind government that that the continuing state of New Zealand’s rivers is a national calamity.
It is a disgraceful, shameful reflection on the failure of successive governments to remedy a water crisis that has been worsening over decades.

The report stated that the criteria used “looks only at bacteria levels.” Even there, we have one of the highest rates of zoonoses in the developed world. A zoonosis is an infectious disease that has passed from an animal to humans. Such pathogens may be bacterial, viral or parasitic, and can spread to humans through direct contact or through food, water or the environment. They represent a major public health problem around the world due to humans’ close relationship with animals in agriculture, exacerbated by large, concentrated populations.

New Zealand’s water crisis goes far deeper. We also have one of the highest rates of sediment runoff, which smothers all life in a waterway. Sediment runoff is accelerated by land uses such as intensive agriculture and forestry clear felling, the latter immediately exposing the bare soil to subsequent rain.

But even in clear water, contamination may be present. Clear water can contain high nitrate levels from dairying runoff, which is cannot be controlled by riparian planting on margins. When concentrated further by low flows from irrigation draw-offs and warmed by shade removal, the inevitable result is toxic algal blooms – and unswimmable rivers. Another unseen effect of algal blooms is that during the day they actually produce oxygen, but at night the reverse occurs, and they suck oxygen out of the water, creating hypoxic dead zones.

The alarming aspect to governments failure is that some administrations have gone beyond doing nothing to aggravating the crisis by encouraging degrading land uses. For example, the National government of 2008 -17, took deliberate steps to accelerate the practice of intensive dairying into dry, low rainfall environments on inappropriate soils such as the Mackenzie basin and Canterbury Plains, made possible only by draining rivers and aquifers for irrigation.

Canterbury’s Selwyn River, once a sparkling revered fly fishing river in now a green, slimy mess. Photo Radio NZ 

The then government led by PM John Key and with a student Minister for the Environment Nick Smith sacked a democratically elected council in Environment Canterbury (ECan) and replaced it with its own hand-picked commissioners, to speed up approvals for dairying development, largely by corporate interests. It was an affront to democracy and the environment – and human health. The consequences have been catastrophic.

The NZ Federation of Freshwater Anglers has measured nitrate levels over recent years and the levels are alarming – toxic to trout, salmon smolt and native fish and also well above safe human health levels. A 2019 Danish study of 2.7 million people reported a strong link between nitrate in drinking water and the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer. This finding has important implications for public health as New Zealand has one of the highest bowel cancer rates in the world.

This is a time for action, not “paralysis by committees” as government both central and local seem to deflect criticism.  Even the latest “assurance” by agriculture minister Damien O’Connor of government now “tweaking” freshwater requirements has a whiff of inappropriate compromise, and “stonewalling because of past inaction.

The cleanup needs to be started immediately and be science based. Government needs to act on the advice its own scientists have already given them, as it has so successfully in other areas.

How woeful that countries like China have more stringent water standards than New Zealand.

How pathetic that both national and regional government have been able to kick this can down the road for future generations to have to deal with.

The NZ public deserves and expects better.

Editor’s Footnote; Ken Sims is a retired micro-biologist, a lifelong fisherman and “a student of rivers”.
The article referred to was in the “Star Sunday Tines” written by Denise Piper (Dec 6, headlined “Over 60% of Rivers Unswimmable”)


The Labour Party along with the Green Party and NZ First at the 2017 election, promised to make a positive start to cleaning up rivers. Protest bill boards testify to rivers being a foremost issue with 80% of New Zealanders. Over three years later there is still inaction
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5 Responses to Ruined Rivers a National Disgrace

  1. Nicholas Lorenz says:

    Graphic photos and timely opinion article to remind government.

  2. Tim+Neville says:

    One of the best summaries of the “Freshwater Disaster” I have read. Perhaps James Shaw could use it?????
    Tim Neville

  3. Charles Henry says:

    Why is it the recreational fisherfolk are such a bunch of pussies?
    They’re willing to watch the total demise of their rivers, streams and backwaters (and sea-fishing as well) without lifting a finger to do anything to stop it?
    Just sit back, watch and expect someone else to nursemaid you?
    Bunch of pussies deserve all they get (or rather don’t get)!

  4. Peter Trolove says:

    A great and timely article by Ken.
    The Land AIr and Water Aotearoa LAWA site contains more than enough data to make those who knowingly set up the unsustainable large scale irrigated dairy farms of Central Canterbury hang their heads in shame – the National Party cabinet of the period, the non elected Ecan commissioners and senior Ecan staff who remain in a state of denial, (or in fear of their jobs). Christchurch City and Selwyn District Councilors are similarly culpable.
    NZFFA data collected over the past 18 months shows the nitrate levels in the Selwyn River where it reemerges from the inland aquifer has increased 38% on Ecan’s 5 year mean. The December 2020 reading at Chamberlain’s Ford was 9.85 mg/L NO3-N. The MAV for drinking water is 11.3 for New Zealand and about half this value in other countries including South Africa.
    This is a disaster for lowland freshwater ecosystems and a real and growing threat to the health of rural residents living on the Canterbury Plains.
    It is simply appalling that a medically trained head of Federated Farmers should accuse Canterbury’s Chief Medical Officer of Health who pointed out this looming environmental and Public health disaster to an ineffective Regional Council as scaremongering.
    The success of the Central Plains Water irrigation scheme is estimated to be $300 million about the same as it would cost to restore Te Waihora alone.

  5. Grant Henderson says:

    Very good letter in “Trout Fisher” magazine (Summer 2020/21) by John Kent.He recounts his frustration after spending 20 years lobbying for clean streams, only to see governments on left and right turn a blind eye to the damage dirty dairying does, all in the name of economic growth (and votes).

    An ex-Labour politician appointed to the ECan board by National admitted to JK the ECan board members were simply government agents.

    One bright spot; it seems the Hon David Parker is a trout fisher.Let’s build on that.

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