Queenstown and Wanaka’s lakes are New Zealand’s poster children. 

The appearance belies the reality – our Southern-Lakes waterways are in danger and no-one is talking loudly enough about it. It’s not bad all the time, and for some, that’s enough leeway to ignore the problem.  

There’s a map, on the Ministry of the Environment’s webpage that shows the real-time, most recently recorded water quality for every large lake and river in the country. The colour coding goes from red being ‘poor’ to blue being ‘excellent’. If you look closely enough there’s a trend, the red dots are creeping their way upstream, multiplying, coming ever-closer to the source. Our waterways are dying.

Water quality is a weathervane, it signals changes on the horizon. Those changes are occurring at a rapid rate. The Southern-Lakes is home to New Zealand’s fastest growing population, increasing annually at around 8% – a lot when compared with Auckland’s 2%. We have over three million visitors a year, and that number is multiplying with airport expansions and draft tourism strategies tabled that forecast five million visitors in the not too distant future. Our water quality is in danger across the district – not only big bodies of water under regional council control but also drinking water and storm water under local district council control. The infrastructure is under too much pressure – from development runoff, storm water provisions, sewage treatment and other, smaller, contributing factors.

E. Coli, cyanobacteria, Lake Snot, these are all terms that have become part of our everyday vocabulary. We have begun to expect days in summer where the quality is so bad as to be unswimmable rather than being shocked by it. That desensitisation leads to a slippery slope of acceptance. The only response to anything less than pristine and excellent condition of our waterways should be outrage. Foot-stamping, loud, vocal, in-your-face outrage. There’s a crisis afoot, not just brewing, and we need our authorities to recognise it. Just because water looks clear does not mean it isn’t contaminated. So where’s the problem? What is causing it? And most importantly, what can we do about it?

Lake Wakatipu

Lake Wakatipu is the jewel in the basin, the glittering expanse of blue that draws holidaymakers from afar – especially in summer. The fact that dangerous levels of E.coli have been detected on more than one occasion in a body of water so large is extremely concerning. Last summer E. Coli recordings in Frankton Arm peaked at over four times the recommended levels and warning notices were issued. By and large the water quality is ‘excellent’ so what’s happening when it dips so far below those levels?

Alexa Forbes is a Queenstown-Lakes District Councillor. She’s also a lecturer in sustainability at Otago Polytechnic and a sustainability advisor for the Centre for Sustainable Practice. Every day she is researching and working towards implementing innovative solutions for social and environmental issues. So when it comes to water in our district, she knows what she’s talking about.

Forbes is worried about water quality in the Southern-Lakes, not just for the surface issues but for the issues that we don’t see.

“E. coli levels rise in summer. There’s more heat, more people, more ducks. It’s a high growth period. The definitive contributing factor is that we have ignored the health of big bodies of water for far too long.”

“What concerns me deeply is that we don’t know very much about our waterways, there’s nothing deep down in the lakes that is measuring quality. We have no idea what has settled deep down in the lakes. These are big questions.”

Flurries of outrage peak whenever warnings are issued, but fade swiftly. The lake still appears picturesque, clean, and there are so many more obvious, pressing problems that it soon takes a backseat in the public consciousness. Forbes’ contention is that research and funding must continue to be a priority so that we have solutions at the ready before it is too late.

Lake Hayes

Over the last few years Lake Hayes has had periodic closures – not only for swimming but also for contact sports such as rowing or paddle boarding. Both E. coli and cyanobacteria have been regular villains. Cyanobacteria is what we commonly refer to as ‘blue-green algae’ and exposure to the toxins can be extremely harmful. Think vomiting, diarrhoea, cough, headache, fever, blisters from contact and, in rare cases, slurred speech and respiratory distress.

The houses that surround Lake Hayes are in the $5m+ club – up there even by Queenstown’s inflated standards. The lake is a popular swimming hole for locals and tourists alike and the 8km trail that skirts the water’s edge is in constant use by joggers, dog walkers, anyone that wants to enjoy a spectacular walk by the water’s edge.

The Otago Regional Council has approved four initiatives that it believes will help over the coming year. These include a monitoring buoy, increased testing on nearby streams and diverting irrigation water to help flush the lake out. There’s also a continuing commitment to develop ongoing proposals for the remediation of Lake Hayes’ water quality.

Dr Ella Lawton, Otago Regional Councillor and water scientist with a PhD in resource accounting believes that detailed scientific research is the first step forward.

“One of the ORC’s core purposes is to manage impacts on water quality. They cannot manage what they do not understand; they need a science programme, funding, and an action plan for alpine lakes research.”

The lack of detailed information about the quality is a theme that comes up again and again. Until we know the extent of the problem, how can we solve it?

Friends of Lake Hayes Society secretary Richard Bowman has been advocating for action for years. The group was formed by concerned residents who understood the importance of advocating for change and for increased monitoring. He is cautiously optimistic about the proposed initiatives.

“We want to make sure that they [ORC] actually deliver. They’ve definitely committed to it in general terms, but we have no specifics.”

The testing and monitoring will provide detailed information for water scientists to understand the root causes of the lake’s degeneration. The hope is that it is not too late and that the ORC implement solutions swiftly.

Freedom Camping

Every summer, scores of campers descend on lay-bys and convenient parking places to freedom camp. It’s great, the opportunity to set up camp in the midst of some of our most spectacular scenery and not be surrounded by other people. Problem is, no people means no facilities. No facilities means people dig holes and leave waste nearby thinking ‘it’s just me, it won’t hurt.’ Multiply that and there’s a real issue. Last year alone, nearly 17,500 freedom campers were counted in the district and ‘freedom defecators’ became a huge problem for council enforcement. More facilities will help the issue but the sheer number of people is a large contributing factor.

Forbes believes that the health of our water ways is a problem with many causes, a systemic issue. High growth and high number of visitors are factors, but only one part of the puzzle. It does increase the challenges though. “The more people we have the more difficult it is to address these problems.”

Arrowtown drinking water

Chlorination is a hot topic around the country. Arrowtown, Hawea and Glenorchy are still set up as chemically untreated supplies with UV or oxygenation plants in place. Yet increasingly, that water has registered for high levels of E.coli and chlorination has been necessary to ensure safety. There have been a number of boil-water notices issued, not necessarily because of the intake water quality but because the system is operating on old, amended infrastructure that is not a closed system. Forbes is hopeful that the council will continue to look for other solutions so that chlorination will be able to be reversed in the future.

“We cannot put this in place and say job done. That cannot happen.”

Queenstown Lakes District Council is responsible for drinking water supplies and for the decision to implement chlorination. The risk analysis showed a low risk but an extremely high consequence should a waterborne illness spread. As a councillor, Forbes is well aware of the potential repercussions.

“A Havelock North disaster would be shocker in Queenstown. I would hate to think of that happening on my watch which is why I’ve supported chlorination which I don’t usually support.”

The amount of visitors to the district increases the risk exponentially. A waterborne illness would travel vast distances, extremely rapidly and affect far more people than are resident in Arrowtown, Hawea, or Glenorchy. It is a symptom of the pressure that the infrastructure is under – built for a permanent population but catering for vast numbers of visitors.

What can we do?

The decline in water quality is an indicator of things to come, a canary singing atop the lake, begging us to heed the warning. It contributes to the conversation around what kind of tourism growth we want – is it numbers through the arrival gates or is it slower, more sustainable growth?

The answer is in research, in evidence-based solutions that are rapidly implemented. To achieve that, we need an active community that supports strong science and is prepared to fund it. Forbes would like to see the community vocal on the issue, keeping it in the spotlight and in focus.

“The story is around a very complex problem with a lot of systemic issues, we need to work through them, we are committed to working through them, but the answers aren’t simple and there will be a whole lot of them.”

“We are the headwaters, everything we do here affects everyone all the way down to the sea, we hold a big responsibility.”

What happens here, and how effectively we solve it will come down to how good the science is and how quickly recommendations will be implemented. The rest of the country should watch with interest, it’s a nationwide problem and if it can be solved here, there is hope for all of our waterways.

Poppie Johnson is a Queenstown-based freelance writer and secondary school English teacher who comments on social issues.

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