Government bows to pressure, adopts 'swimmable' target for lakes and rivers

Achieving what Environment Minister Nick Smith said was an "ambitious" target would cost around $2 billion over the next 23 years

The government has made an election-year change to its goals for the quality of water in New Zealand's lakes and rivers, moving from a minimum standard of all water bodies being "wadeable" and adopting instead a target of 90% "swimmable" waterways by 2040.

Achieving what Environment Minister Nick Smith said was an "ambitious" target would cost around $2 billion over the next 23 years and will cover the length of every river more than 400 centimetres deep and every lake with a perimeter of more than 1.5 kilometres. A national total of 54,000km of lake perimeters are covered by that requirement.

Speaking to BusinessDesk, Prime Minister Bill English acknowledged that there was "a political element" to the decision to adopt swimmability as a target but it reflected both strength of public submissions on the question, and the fact that the new target could be backed up credibly by the lengthy programme of work that had led to this point.

"We get to make these choices now because we've worked our arses off so we can stand there with (Environmental Defence Society director) Gary Taylor and (Fish & Game Council head) Bryce Johnson and they will back it up. It's got a very solid foundation."

Cleaner coastal lagoons and estuaries are also part of the package of measures announced today as the latest in eight years of efforts to improve freshwater quality management and represents the latest chapter of work following the "Next steps for freshwater" document published in November 2015.

A 96-page consultation document published today largely mirrors the recommendations from 2015, including fencing of non-dairy stock from freshwater bodies by 2030. While it extends and clarifies a range of monitoring regimes and requirements, the most substantial change is the government's adoption of the aspirational "swimmable" target rather than targeting minimum standards and "wadeability."

"New Zealanders expect to be able to take a dip in their local river or lake without getting a nasty bug," Dr Smith said, announcing a decision whose political intent is to neutralise the momentum created by the Green and Labour parties to require a standard of swimmability.

However, Smith warned that 100% swimmability was not an achievable goal.

"Even our cleanest rivers breach swimming water standards during storms.

However, the definition of swimmable comes with caveats, detail and a long timeline.

"The swimmable target is based on meeting the water quality standard at least 80% of the time, in line with European and US definitions," Dr Smith said. "At the moment, 72% by length meet this definition and the target is to increase that to 90% by 2040.

"This means an additional 10,000 kilometres of swimmable rivers and lakes by 2040, or 400 km per year" and will be achieved in part by an estimated $367 million worth of additional farm fencing to exclude dairy, dairy support and beef cattle, pigs, and deer from waterways by 2030.

Also announced was a new $100 million Freshwater Improvement Fund, with bids open for projects until April 13.

Technical changes to the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, which dictates national standards and overrides the Resource Management Act, include adding macroinvertebrate (insect) monitoring, clarifying the "consideration of economic opportunities", requiring in-stream limits for phosporous and nitrogen, clarifying exceptions policy, and strengthing the requirements for improvement and monitoring.


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