Ruined Rivers a National Disgrace

Opinion by Ken Sims,
Life member NZ Federation Freshwater Anglers.

The recently published article showing 65 percent of our rivers are “unswimmable” in a country of just 5 million people, should remind government that that the continuing state of New Zealand’s rivers is a national calamity.

It is a disgraceful, shameful reflection on the failure of successive governments to remedy a water crisis that has been worsening over decades.


The report stated that the criteria used “looks only at bacteria levels.” Even there, we have one of the highest rates of zoonoses in the developed world. A zoonosis is an infectious disease that has passed from an animal to humans. Such pathogens may be bacterial, viral or parasitic, and can spread to humans through direct contact or through food, water or the environment. They represent a major public health problem around the world due to humans’ close relationship with animals in agriculture, exacerbated by large, concentrated populations.


New Zealand’s water crisis goes far deeper. We also have one of the highest rates of sediment runoff, which smothers all life in a waterway. Sediment runoff is accelerated by land uses such as intensive agriculture and forestry clear felling, the latter immediately exposing the bare soil to subsequent rain. 


But even in clear water, contamination may be present. Clear water can contain high nitrate levels from dairying runoff, which is cannot be controlled by riparian planting on margins. When concentrated further by low flows from irrigation draw-offs and warmed by shade removal, the inevitable result is toxic algal blooms – and unswimmable rivers. Another unseen effect of algal blooms is that during the day they actually produce oxygen, but at night the reverse occurs, and they suck oxygen out of the water, creating hypoxic dead zones.


The alarming aspect to governments failure is that some administrations have gone beyond doing nothing to aggravating the crisis by encouraging degrading land uses. For example, the National government of 2008 -17, took deliberate steps to accelerate the practice of intensive dairying into dry, low rainfall environments on inappropriate soils such as the Mackenzie basin and Canterbury Plains, made possible only by draining rivers and aquifers for irrigation.

Canterbury’s Selwyn River, once a sparkling revered fly fishing river in now a green, slimy mess. Photo Radio NZ 

The then government led by PM John Key and with a student Minister for the Environment Nick Smith sacked a democratically elected council in Environment Canterbury (ECan) and replaced it with its own hand-picked commissioners, to speed up approvals for dairying development, largely by corporate interests. It was an affront to democracy and the environment – and human health. The consequences have been catastrophic.


The NZ Federation of Freshwater Anglers has measured nitrate levels over recent years and the levels are alarming – toxic to trout, salmon smolt and native fish and also well above safe human health levels. A 2019 Danish study of 2.7 million people reported a strong link between nitrate in drinking water and the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer. This finding has important implications for public health as New Zealand has one of the highest bowel cancer rates in the world.


This is a time for action, not “paralysis by committees” as government both central and local seem to deflect criticism.  Even the latest “assurance” by agriculture minister Damien O’Connor of government now “tweaking” freshwater requirements has a whiff of inappropriate compromise, and “stonewalling because of past inaction.


The cleanup needs to be started immediately and be science based. Government needs to act on the advice its own scientists have already given them, as it has so successfully in other areas. 


How woeful that countries like China have more stringent water standards than New Zealand. 


How pathetic that both national and regional government have been able to kick this can down the road for future generations to have to deal with. 


The NZ public deserves and expects better.


Editor’s Footnote; Ken Sims is a retired micro-biologist, a lifelong fisherman and “a student of rivers”.
The article referred to was in the “Star Sunday Tines” written by Denise Piper (Dec 6, headlined “Over 60% of Rivers Unswimmable”)


The Labour Party along with the Green Party and NZ First at the 2017 election, promised to make a positive start to cleaning up rivers. Protest bill boards testify to rivers being a foremost issue with 80% of New Zealanders. Over three years later there is still inaction

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11 Responses to Ruined Rivers a National Disgrace

  1. Rick Webster says:

    Well spoken.
    A broken promise by Labour and Greens and NZ First 2017-2020. What will 2020-2023 bring? Another broken promise? Meanwhile the state of rivers deteriorates.

  2. pete says:

    Does the big book not say the end is near when all the water turns to wormwood. More immigration, obviously more people, more farming, more development, more pressure on the country as a whole. The country is a joke and all the dumb sheep that vote for such lunacy. Environment and people before profit!!!!!!! But only until we are fighting over the last scraps of clean water will the idiots running the place sit up and take notice

  3. Jono Patoka says:

    What happened to Jacinda Adern’s “well being” budget? Does not “well being” include clean and fully flowing rivers? Hollow words by politicians again.
    The legacy which John Key left is a “shocker.” He should hang his head in shame but does he really care?

  4. Charles Henry says:

    Why is it the recreational fisherfolk are such a bunch of pussies?
    They’re willing to watch the total demise of their rivers, streams and backwaters (and sea-fishing as well) without lifting a finger to do anything to stop it?
    Just sit back, watch and expect someone else to nursemaid you?
    Bunch of pussies deserve all they get (or rather don’t get)!

  5. David Tranter says:

    So sad to see how the public goes on trusting politicians when they have repeatedly demonstrated that with a few exceptions they are unworthy of anyone’s trust.
    Having taken an active role in NZ politics for 18 years (now living in Australia – where the politicians are possibly even more devious than in NZ) the only solution I can see is for the public to demand that NZ adopts the Swiss citizens’ initiated referenda where all major decisions can be voted on with the outcome being binding on the government.

  6. Dave says:

    This will carry on until we have regional areas which are designated for certain types of farming. The old people knew how to look after the land but not any more . So if the farmers just want dollars wit5hout out taking in the environmental impacts then legislation will have to govern the areas that cause most degradation to the land scape. As for forestry we have to count the cost to the benefits and be more concerned at breaking the soil . When a country such as ours increases the population just to get votes the Governments of the day are not serving the people who are already here. And Jono it would be better to
    hang the politicians who don’t care instead of asking them to hang their heads in shame

  7. Tony Orman says:

    Charles Henry calling anglers (most) “a bunch of pussies” is quite right if I understand him correctly. Apathy is the biggest danger, i.e. the failure to speak up and hold councils and governments to critical scrutiny. The apathy is amongst us, it’s a fear of being branded a sh– stirrer. Well get over it otherwise governments will continue to just pay lip service and do nothing while rivers further go down the gurgler.

  8. Jono Patoka says:

    George Carlin said about apathy “Scientists announced today that they have discovered a cure for apathy. However, they claim no one has shown the slightest interest in it.”

  9. Angus Wickerby says:

    Government knows only too well but does nothing tangible. Only lip service. Yet it’s told by its own agencies.
    This from AgResearch:-
    “Despite the efforts of many farmers to care for our water, at the same time on other farms land use changed and farming intensified.
    Land area used by dairy expanded 40% between 1995 and 2015, and together with changes on farm, total dairy production increased by around 160%.
    The land area occupied by sheep and beef contracted, but the intensity of production per hectare increased.
    This increased food production continued to put pressure on freshwater by increasing total nitrogen loss. Mitigations were not sufficient to offset these increased nitrogen loads.”
    Well Messrs Parker and O’Connor? And Adern?

  10. Bud JonesQSM says:

    You are showing billboard signs here asking Jacinda to fix this. Think for a moment where sh has thrown our money at what she thinks is a needy problem–$56mil to maoridom for covid & qa further $10 for maraes.All this race based cash while rivers are in a disgraceful condition.
    Bud JonesQSM

  11. Jono Patoka says:

    Oh well said Bud Jones.
    Ironic in that the philosophy behind NZ’s egalitarian ethos the pioneer settlers set up was equal opportunity for all, regardless of class, wealth or ethnic background. Therefore rivers belong to all Kiwis regardless ethnic background.
    Rivers and water belongs to all Kiwis, despite John Key’s stupid utterance “water belongs to no one.”

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