Toxic River Algae Early Summer a Shameful Situation

Opinion by Ben Hope

It is not yet Christmas yet already toxic algae has appeared in North Canterbury Rivers such as the Waiau. The Canterbury District Health Board has issued a health warning.
It is not the first water  warning this summer. 
In late November, a toxic algae warning was issued for Canterbury’s Pegasus Lake.
It is not the first time this year either. In the case of Pegasus Lake it is the sixth year.
The algae in more recent Waiau River case is “a moderate to high amount of benthic cyanobacteria”.
The District Health Board (DHB) has warned people to avoid the area, and animals, The particularly dogs, should not be allowed near the water until the health warning was lifted.
The DHB said the algae could be present at other places along the Waiau River and advised “people should treat every low-flowing river with caution”.
There are also health warnings in place for Lake Ellesmere, Opihi River at Saleyards Bridge, Selwyn River near Glentunnel and Whitecliffs Domain, Waihao River at Bradshaws Bridge, Hakataramea River at State Highway 82, Waimakariri River at Thompsons Road, Hurunui River at SH1, and Pareora River at SH1 due to algae.
Every River
How did New Zealand’s waterways and lakes get to this situation? What dire stage is the water quality crisis at when the DHB warns “people should treat every low-flowing river with caution”.
What is being done to attack the dreadful situation where the public are advised to regard every low-flowing river as contaminated with a toxic algae?
Successive governments have been “fiddling while Rome burns.” It goes back probably to the last century but if one must indulge in a post mortem, the National government 2008-17 was to the fore in terms of guilt.
Back in March 2010 – a decade ago – National’s Environment Minister Nick Smith sacked the elected board of councillors at Environment Canterbury. A report at the time said “the decision has been heralded as a black day for democracy, but Smith says the performance of the councillors was so bad they couldn’t wait until the elections in October.”
All Smith had to do was to wait seven months till the next election. But he and government could not wait. They wanted control.
The state takeover followed a report by former National MP Wyatt Creech who described the council as “dysfunctional”. A former National MP? And no greater shakes ether during an undistinguished political career.
But the sacked councillors said the takeover was bad for democracy.
And it was.
It was bizarre in the extreme that Smith as Environment Minister should be a central figure. Environment minster? Yeah right!
It was a state takeover more typical of a communist regime.
The National Government rushed through legislation which suspended that year’s elections for ECan and giving the commissioners wide-reaching powers to achieve their purpose.
Legislation removed the Environment Court as an appeal option for people opposing consent decisions and restricting general legal avenues. Power to make final decisions on water issues rested with Smith.
It was an affront to democracy.
Enter Sam Mahon
Remember Sam Mahon’s infamous statue of Nick Smith?
Sam Mahon, is an artist and author, a straight shooter, and one of the staunchest critics of ECan and anybody who pollutes the public’s water. After the National government sacked the ECan council in 2010, Sam Mahon sculpted Nick Smith’s head from cow dung. Smith famously responded “Sam there is absolutely nothing that you could do that would hurt my feelings”.
But in 2017 Nick Smith was offended.  Sam produced another artwork of Nick Smith, at over twice life-sized with the pant-less politician squatting and pooping into a glass of water. 
It was reported Smith’s feelings were then hurt. On top that Sam Mahon then released a book “The Honourable Nick Smith and Me”.
One critic said of the book “It’s funny. It outlines how the take over of our water has happened over the years, why it’s now so polluted. It wasn’t an accident; it was entirely calculated.”So where to now?
Rivers and lakes – indeed the whole water resource – need many, many more Sam Mahons.

, Toxic River Algae Early Summer a Shameful Situation

People Power Needed
The power must be restored to the people. But for that to happen, the people must get angry and active.
That requires a collective super human effort.
Super human?
The reason is that apathy is so dominant amongst individuals – and organisations ranging from Fish and Game to the Department of Conservation and others.
Fish and Game NZ?
Instead Fish and Game NZ has been undergoing musical chairs with the chairmanship, is currently under scrutiny in a government review and to top it off latest Fish and Game NZ chairman Ray Grubb has declared a policy of appeasement by sitting down over cups of tea with Federated Farmers NZ, an organisation unshakeable and totally unconvinced there is no water crisis.
Bad news for National
As for National’s Nick Smith, despite being defeated in his electorate in the 2020 election, he has the gall and arrogance to remain in Parliament as a list MP.
His presence does nothing for the National Party and more into negative mode.
But what of the current Labour government? In 2017 it erected billboards by Canterbury’s “stuffed” Selwyn River. The billboards showed a beaming leader Jacinda Adern in January 2017 promising “We will Clean up the Rivers.”

, Toxic River Algae Early Summer a Shameful Situation

Over three years later, the public are being told by the Canterbury District Health Board to “treat every low-flowing river with caution.”
The public deserve much. much better. So do the rivers the public’s trout and salmon and native fish.
Where’s DOC?
Relative to “native fish” just where is the Department of Conservation in advocating for clean fish habitat?
DOC – Absent without Leave – AWOL.
So is government despite its 2017 promise “We will Clean Up Rivers!”
It needs to act now.

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12 Responses to Toxic River Algae Early Summer a Shameful Situation

  1. Nicholas Lorenz says:

    It makes me angry that governments have been so irresponsible, neglectful, sheer “dereliction of duty” over our water, rivers, lakes etc.,
    I agree “The power must be restored to the people. But for that to happen, the people must get angry and active.”
    National for you to have credibility, Nick Smith should be gone “by lunchtime”.

  2. Rex Gibson says:

    This is as good a summary as you can get. Well done to the author.
    Rex Gibson QSM, M.Sc.(Distinction).
    Consulting ecologist and NZFFA Executive Member

  3. Charles Henry says:

    As I posted in comments to an earlier post, the Hutt is now a regular victim of toxic algae.
    Unheard of 30 years ago, the slow steady reduction in flow caused by the insatiable demands and high draws taken from the catchment coupled with the ever-increasing monoculture pine plantations generating acidic runoff.
    Fancifully, Wellington Regional Council blame global warming, but that’s simply a misdirection away from their abysmal track record in investing for the future. Like all water and sewage infrastructure in the Greater Wellington Region, it is falling apart through lack of investment.
    Sewage being transported to a landfill for years should have sounded alarm bells. The first indications of toxic blooms should have rung another.
    So now what will they do to provide the facilities they should have had available years ago? No doubt their usual “engage a consultant” so they have someone to take the blame and deflect it from the real culprits.

    NZFFA - New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers

    • Dave Rhodes says:

      Living in Upper Hutt, I know full well the dangers of owning a dog, what with the annual toxic algae and then their obsession with 1080 allowing rotting carcasses to wash downstream and remain fatal to dogs for months afterward.

  4. Albert Francis says:

    Politics is the art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other. The political donation issue is scandalous, overshadowing the many broken promises like Labour, Greens and NZ First in 2017 promising to clean up rivers. NZ First is gone after betraying its voters on rivers, foreign ownership, 1080, immigration and others. But Labour is there on its own with full responsibly to do something about water, from declaring public ownership, banning water exports for free by foreigners to hauling in dairying in low rainfall districts to cleaning up rivers. Riparian strips are cosmetic fiddling “while Rome burns.” It is a watershed problem.

  5. Alan+Rennie says:

    Medical Officer of Health needs to declare a civil emergency on the state of our rivers /water in the whole of the South Island .

  6. Tony Orman says:

    After believing in promises made and never fulfilled by governments, people have become increasingly disenchanted with the process assuming that all politicians will say anything to gain power, and then never follow through. National’s shameful state grab on ECAN strengthened that disenchantment.
    The only solution is power by the people because that represents votes. But have the people the will and energy, when apathy is commonplace? As Plato said “The price of apathy is to be ruled by evil men.”

  7. Ken Sims says:

    It isn’t as if the Government lacks a mandate to act. They have enough seats in the House to govern alone, and 78% of NZ’ers have already said they are fed up with the state of their waterways, and want them fixed. Labour is saying it will take a generation to fix them. I’m asking ‘what the heck will be left to save in a generations time?”‘ The time to act is now! We know the rhorts and conflicts of interest that are occurring at all levels of Govt. which allow the polluters to continue to pollute. The time for talking and tinkering is over. It is time to get tough. Otherwise, what are you going to tell your kids? “Maybe by the time your kids grow up”? Yeah, right!

  8. Justice Will B. Dunn. says:

    Yes, all very confusing, declare a Climate Emergency just as our freshwater system reaches near collapse. I feel like the Lorax watching the last of the Truffula trees being wiped out. History will be a cruel judge of our impotent politicians.

  9. Dave says:

    Why do we put in such incompetent people who have proved themselves not worthy of our trust? Now we have a climate Emergency when so much is happening that is detrimental to our ecosystem but is not being addressed. We the people demand that something is done before it all too late. It is not as though we have not lived and enjoyed clean rivers as we had in the 50’s so what has gone so wrong. Too much toxic crap that is what.

  10. Grant Henderson says:

    On 9 Jan 2021 the government announced $36 million in funding for waterway cleanup projects. Almost a third of that will go to a Northland project (Waitangi river). Nothing for the Selwyn river, Lake Ellesmere or Southland’s Waihola Lagoon, which will remain badly degraded.

    It’s just tinkering round the edges.

    For the Covid-19 crisis, Labour went fast and early. For the water crisis, it’s going slow and late.

  11. Frank Henry says:

    Very good contrast Grant, between water criss and covid crisis as to speed of government to act.

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