Urban New Zealand has leveled a lot of criticism over the fence at its rural neighbours, however as we see ongoing health warnings for Auckland’s beaches, its worth looking at who really respects our water and is getting off their chuff and doing something about it?
The Ministry for the Environment just released their much anticipated report estimating the cost of making 90 per cent of our rivers and lakes "swimmable" by 2040. The bill totals about $220 million a year, most of which would be borne those living in rural areas and Auckland.
The costs were calculated after the nation's 16 regional councils submitted their draft targets for meeting the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and in the rural space those mitigation costs fall very heavily on the sheep and beef sector (53% of the total rural bill or just over 70 million per year).
There is no doubt water is at the centre of life here in New Zealand, we are surrounded by it, often drenched in it, it is a key driver of industry and agriculture, it is without a doubt our most valuable resource and in some places its under real threat both in terms of cleanliness and abundance.
Off the back of some concerning water quality numbers urban kiwis have focused the blame on country folk effectively placing themselves on a moral pedestal, but are they doing their bit and do they really appreciate water like those in countryside?
We often in life we find those who talk the biggest games fail to live up to their own lofty proclamations of grandeur.
There are several high-profile examples which spring to mind…
Jason Russell, co-founder of non-profit Invisible Children and director of the "Kony 2012" viral video campaign, fleeced money from good natured folk to chase down the African warlord, only to be arrested for pleasuring himself in public while his charity appeared to be mostly a sham.
In more recent times our generosity towards those heartbreaking TV adverts from World Vision and UNICEF has been blighted by corruption and sexual abuse scandals.
I would argue that the great water debate is a classic example of town talking a big game and delivering bugger all, while country humbly goes about cleaning up its act.
I put the crux of the matter down to respect of water.
For rural New Zealand water is not a nicety used to create ornate gardens and keep cars clean...water is the lifeblood of the productive economy and farmers and growers have come to respect water as essential in everything they do, and this respect is crystallised in our dry years and is leading to action in terms of conservation and cleanliness.
Country not only knows how important water is to its survival it also intimately understands where its water comes from, to be fair it's hard not to when you spend countless thousands on drilling bores, building storage and piping it around your farm! Country also knows that costly, smelly business of dealing with waste, from stumping up for septic tank pump outs to countless hours on the slurry wagon dealing with effluent our farmers need to clean up their own crap and for the most part they do.
Conversely down the road in Newmarket and Remuera water is more of an expected amenity that is someone else’s responsibility. It simply appears clean and treated from the tap each day while the daily bowel movement disappears around the s-bend never to be seen again until the next heavy rain when you spot a couple of nuggies floats past during the morning dip at the beach. I would hazard a guess most in our towns and cities have no idea where their water comes from and those lorded over by metered local authorities only take a passing glance at their usage when the bill gets paid.
In short country has a hard earned respect of water gained through understanding, something that urban New Zealand just doesn’t have. If it’s dirty, dry or overflowing its their issue and they need to deal with it, not blame someone else.
This view was reinforced to me a few months back...While the deep south was parched beyond anything in recent memory a friend of mine, famed travel agent Alan Ward confessed to some weekend watering of his lawn and tussocks. I paused to contemplate this and asked him why he was hosing away merrily as water restrictions and sprinkler bans were being handed out by local councils thick and fast. His response was a little stunted and confused but eventually he managed to settle on because it keeps them looking good.
My suburban friend has just summed up the great majority of Kiwis living in towns and cities around New Zealand. Flushing millions upon millions of litres of often treated water onto their lush urban parklands for nothing more than pure aesthetics.
I countered him stating that surely his ornamental garden was not important when we were so short of water?... shouldn't we prioritise if for growing food and drinking, not to mention those tussocks are pretty hardy and will probably last a few weeks without a drink.
He disagreed and I’d argue like Wardy that most people turn on their taps assuming an unlimited supply of clean water, yet if they get a boil water notice their complacency is rocked and they start looking for a cow to blame if they can find one.
I do concur those in the countryside use their roof or bore gathered supply to water their gardens and lawns (often this is too reduce fire risk) and some city folk make great use of their water growing majestic vegetable gardens spewing forth bountiful courgettes and lettuces for the their summer salads but like any argument mine relies on a general adherence to my theory not complete obedience.
So the battle lines remain drawn, city folk launch salvos at those running their centre pivots and K-Line pods around our rural landscapes and country folk defend themselves while sharing on Facebook the regular beach health updates from Auckland's tragically polluted shorelines. In the end we reach a stalemate on who is to blame and who needs to fix it.
So who as walking the walk in terms of cleaning up their act?
As major users and contributors to water pollution rural New Zealand rightly so is taking to the task of conservation, mitigation and remediation with earnest, waterways are being fenced, effluent managed, riparian strips planted, nutrient limits set, technology’s for more efficient water and waste management adopted and production practices are changing. It’s expensive business but the rural sector is mucking in and getting it done.
As I noted above this is something rural New Zealand has a responsibility to do but it also pays to remember the water used in the countryside is used productively and almost exclusively goes into growing food which is either sold to other kiwis mostly in urban areas or sold offshore, keeping our economy running. It’s an excuse to be fair but I’d argue it’s a meritorious use of water if its used well.
Conversely urban New Zealand has a long way to go as councils up and down the land face the reoccurring issue of waste water contaminating storm water and said storm water polluting beaches as their ratepayers bemoan costly sewerage system upgrades.
The agricultural sector has been hauled over the coals for breaching discharge rules while councils up and down the land regularly breach theirs with gay abandon. The Queenstown Lakes District Council breached its discharge consent into the pristine Shotover River 174 times between July 2011 and Sept 2014 and have been fined again recently for another breach. If councils are not breaching a consent they are applying for one, Auckland and Invercargill just to name a few are locking in decades more of legal raw sewage discharge into waterways … imagine if a dairy farmer applied for a 30 year consent to discharge effluent into a local river?
I won’t even start with what is washed down the storm water drains daily from the streets and backyards across New Zealand!
So while aside from the time honoured process of slowly upgrading sewage treatment plants and replacing broken pipes there hasn't been a lot of movement in urban New Zealand to clean up their act but they have offered a lot of advice to the rest of us.
As a sense check on this if you're reading this and living in a city, what have you personally done to contribute towards water conservation or cleanliness in your own home, aside from posted on Facebook or moaned to the council about it? On the flip side I would hazard a guess most farmers have directly been part of taking action both through their bank account and hard toil.
So while country has some issues to fix, its is a least making progress while town sits on its hands and offers advice, it’s time for a little more action and a little less talk!
View Ministry for the Environment Report: Here
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