Restoring the health of Lake Rotorua will be slow work - but that work has started. Photo: Iain Farrell

‘Big job, expect delays’, is the verdict on water from the Prime Minister’s science adviser, but as Eloise Gibson reports, he says New Zealand has never been more ready to act

The scientific verdict is in: ‘big job, lots of costly work needed, expect delays’.

But the Prime Minister’s science adviser is upbeat about the prospect of radically cleaning up New Zealand’s lakes and rivers – thanks partly to a shift in public opinion caused by “noisy” government critics.

A detailed look at the state of freshwater by Sir Peter Gluckman’s office concluded cleaning waterways is going to be expensive, complicated and slow, taking up to a century to reap rewards in places like Rotorua. Even with radical changes to how we live and farm we will never return our freshwater to its original state.

But the impetus to act is stronger now than it’s ever been, says Sir Peter.

“We can’t ignore the scientific realities of what we’ve done to our water and it will need fundamental changes in urban planning and abstraction, dealing with climate change and, obviously, the agricultural system,” he says. “There’s no getting around it, if we want to have clean water,” he says, and, “I think virtually every Kiwi does.”

“If we’ve taken 200 years to degrade the system, you are not going to get it back overnight and you’ll never get it back to where it was before Pakeha arrived here, let alone before Maori arrived. 

“Particularly where groundwater is involved there are enormously long turnover times,” he says.

“If you think about issues of land use and land cover, all the things that have to happen to improve water quality, it takes time, it takes money and it’s going to take a lot of different stakeholders agreeing on what needs to be done, farmers, industries, irrigation people…it’s complex. That’s really at the guts of this report.”

The document is almost IPCC-like in its goal, which is to draw together the current state of science from various disciplines to help inform a passionate policy debate.

It was started before the Government unveiled its draft Clean Water Package, which prompted debate on what “swimmable” really means and whether the proposed changes would improve matters. It was hurried along so people could read it before making submissions on the water proposal.

As well as a shorter summary of issues for lay-people, it includes a detailed technical report of the state of freshwater science drafted by NIWA, which was reviewed by university researchers from a range of disciplines. It draws on numerous published papers, including two by Mike Joy, a Massey University freshwater ecologist who has been an outspoken critic of government water policy.

Ready to clean up

Sir Peter has been a proponent of “taking the emotion out” of science communication and he told Newsroom he sees his office as a knowledge broker, not a policy advocate. “You’ve got to distinguish between the role and the rights of individual scientists and the roles and rights of me. I’m there to tell the government what we know and what we don’t know and to at least signal where I think solutions might lie but it’s not my job to advocate for a particular solution,” he says.

Yet he is forthright about the overall messages in the new report, which he started nine months ago after asking permission from former prime minister John Key. “I wanted John [Key]’s consent to spend my time and the resources of my office on this, but there’s been no more intervention from his office from that point on,” he says. “I said, the trouble with water is that everyone knows a little bit about it and no one knows everything about it. Why don’t I write a report that summarises what we know about the situation from every perspective?” he says. “I’m not sure we’ve been as comprehensive as that, but we’ve tried.”

While Sir Peter has been publicly cautious – even stern – about the risks of scientists crossing into political advocacy, he believes New Zealand is in the right mind-frame to clean up its water quality partly thanks to agitation by the likes of Mike Joy, and environmental advocacy groups. “I’m pretty old, I’m well in my seventh decade of life, and I don’t recall water ever being on the agenda like it is now. We’ve seen micro debates over Ruataniwha or Canterbury but at a national level, putting water in the public consciousness, I think this is new. And when it’s in the public consciousness it gets in the political consciousness,” he says. It’s no coincidence that he, the government and relevant ministries are tackling water at the same time, he says – voters are interested.

The finished product would have been out sooner, but the Kaikoura earthquake interrupted and the science involved turned out to be broader and more complicated than he’d thought. New Prime Minister Bill English received his copy on Friday, the same day journalists got an embargoed peek at the results.

Boiling it down

Sir Peter says the report is intended as a reference for councils, policy-makers, environmental groups, farmers’ groups and the public. The document’s tone is stark in places. “The science is clear, New Zealand’s freshwaters are under stress because of what we do in and around them,” it says. A quick fix for our rivers and lakes is “unrealistic” or “impossible”, and even with huge efforts to plant along waterways, fence stock out of water, and get farms adopting pollution budgets, it may take 50 years to reach water quality goals in many places, it says. That’s because pollution lingers for decades in groundwater before making its way into waterways, and, meanwhile new urban and rural development will be going on. Long-lived groundwater contamination around Lake Rotorua means that catchment could take 100 years to reach cleanliness goals, it says, and degraded waterways in many places “will never get back to their original states”. Some systems have already passed ecological tipping points.

More specifically, the summary highlights the lack of systematic monitoring of river and lake fish and the need for councils to be more consistent and strategic about where they carry out water quality checks. Among a long list of pollution sources, farming is picked as the main driver of changes nationally, but urban pollution from sewage and storm-water is the biggest problem in some places. Power plants, industry and pests such as Didymo and koi carp are adding to the overall pressure. Phosphorous and ammonia pollution has generally been improving, the report notes, but nitrogen pollution (usually from fertiliser and animal manure) has been overall getting worse.

To clean up: “Major changes will be needed in some sectors of the economy and in planning and consent activity,” says the report. When it comes to water’s role in our economy; “We must ask the question – is it possible to have our cake and eat it too?”

New way of life

New Zealanders would like to believe their water is cleaner than it actually is, says Sir Peter. “They would be sad to know their water has this level of [alteration] to it. But, in fact, there are lots of ways we know how to handle it,” he says. “It’s just that expectations have got to be managed so people understand it will be expensive, slow and complex, but worth doing.”

Asked if there is an inevitable trade-off between economic uses of water and recreational and cultural values, he says we can – slowly – move closer to having both.

“Yes and no. There are alternate pathways. There are altered land uses which could be used for economic purposes, there are ways to sustain agricultural productivity without as many animals on the ground. Whether or not New Zealanders want to go in that direction is not for me to say, but there are technologies that would allow us to do that,” he says. “If you took New Zealand’s economy and simplified it and forgot about the service sector, we have two ways we make money. One is by keeping the environment pristine and promoting tourism, the other is by exploiting the environment through agriculture. I suspect we’ve saturated both to some extent and the issue is how do you change the balance between them?”.

“And there are technological solutions, where you could have your cake and eat it. For example what if you had a high-energy grass? You could probably reduce the number of cows per hectare,” he says. “Fundamental shifts in our farming systems could do it, which is not going happen overnight. Even if we knew where to go, it would take 15-20 years to do it.”


In theory New Zealand has lots of renewable fresh water – about 43 Olympic-sized swimming pools per person a year, says the report. But we also use a huge amount, relying on water to generate much of our electricity and to irrigate increasing areas of dairy farmland. And water doesn’t always end up in places where people most want to use it, leading to shortages in dry regions, especially on the east coast, and flooding in others.

Climate change will shrink river flows in Waikato, Northland and the east coast of both islands, says the report. It will also increase floods – a problem for stormwater pollution in cities – and boost the growth of invasive species. All in all, the message is that New Zealand needs to prepare for a future when climate change worsens both water shortages and pollution levels.

But councils are still struggling to address last century’s over-allocation and poor water management decisions. Is there any prospect we can front-foot it this time and do better at managing water through climate change? 

“I actually think the prospects are good,” says Sir Peter. “And the reason is I think there’s been a change in New Zealanders’ attitudes.”

“I think for years New Zealanders have seen water in a laissez faire way, oh yeah, we have plenty of water and it looks good in our national parks and our recreational areas and the rest of it we can exploit as we like. What’s happened in the last five years thanks to various advocacy groups and – to be fair – [environment minister] Nick Smith, is that we’ve seen an increased realisation that these are not independent phenomena and you have to look at the whole ecosystem,” he says. “And it may have happened because we’ve had the challenges of the Ruataniwha dam and the Canterbury water system and people like Mike Joy making a noise and so forth. But it’s happened,” he says. “Councils and politicians at both a regional and national level are being forced to take water more seriously.”

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