Marnie Prickett: NZ's shocking freshwater issues

Lake Tutira in Hawke's Bay was deemed unsafe for people and that no one should swim there. Photo / Paul Taylor
This summer, a group of young Kiwis have been touring rivers and lakes across New Zealand and speaking with local communities about their state. Following new freshwater quality measures announced by the Government yesterday, Marnie Prickett of the Choose Clean Water Tour writes about the tour.

For a month this summer, our group of five travelled the country to document the stories of New Zealanders dealing with destruction of our rivers and lakes, and urge the government to prioritise the health of all New Zealanders by raising the minimum standard for waterways to swimmable.

The Choose Clean Water tour was a moving, distressing and motivating experience for us as young Kiwis.

We were shocked by the extent of our freshwater issues and at how desperate New Zealanders feel in the face of them.


Farmers may be charged over animals in waterways

No region is unaffected by serious pollution of rivers, lakes, and precious groundwater.

We could have spent a year on the road and still not have visited all the places where the loss of clean, safe freshwater is impacting people's lives.

Kiwis are being forced to watch as the places they love, their lakes, rivers, streams, estuaries, are destroyed in front of their eyes.

These are the places their families have spent summers for generations, where they have caught and collected food for hundreds of years.

Almost everyone we talked with us that when they speak up about it, when they ask that the water not be polluted (in many cases their drinking water as well as water they swim in), they are told their views are extreme or are simply ignored by the local, regional and central government.

Ordinary Kiwis everywhere saying "Please don't pollute our water" are not heard. In some cases they have been saying this for a decade.

We saw authorities claim there is no problem.

An example is the response of Hawke's Bay Regional Council to mass eel and fish deaths in Lake Tutira in January.

First, they reported it was a climate event that killed the wildlife and there was no concern for human safety.

A week later, they reported it was unsafe for people and that no one should swim there.

Later, another round of wildlife deaths occurred and they finally admitted that the lake had been "plagued by pollution for decades".

Another example is from the Ministry for the Environment that reported their national water quality data showed most monitored sites were not in decline.

Later it was proved that this was due to the small amount of monitoring data the ministry chose to analyse.

Their conclusion that water quality was "stable" didn't show the reality on the ground but the selective information the Ministry chose to report on.

The lived experience of the New Zealanders we met, their everyday interactions with lakes and rivers, means they have an intimate understanding of the damage we have inflicted on our water.

People we interviewed know they can no longer swim, they know the fish numbers have decreased, they know they're no longer seeing the wildlife they once commonly saw, they walk across dry river beds where their children once swam.

In Hurunui, people see the "crunchy, yellow water" coming out of their taps.

New Zealanders in all regions we visited understand this crisis deeply.

We are heart-broken.

We look ahead to dirtier, unsafe water; more rivers and lakes lost and know that we must do something about it.

While it's good to hear Minister for the Environment Nick Smith acknowledging that New Zealand does have a freshwater problem, initiatives revealed in the weekend by Smith and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy aim low. Our waterways are still allowed to be so polluted they are only "wadeable", meaning they're not safe for kids to splash around in.

The $100 million for cleaning up is welcome but drop in the bucket when we consider that $144 million has been put forward for the restoration of four Rotorua Lakes alone.

What costs do we face by setting such low goals for our country?

Costs, not just to clean up, but to health, lives and livelihoods, the well-being of our children, our wildlife and land.

Environment Minister Nick Smith said that the high standard of swimmable lakes and rivers isn't realistic but his reasons why seem strange and not well thought out.

One is that not all of our waterways are large enough to swim in.

Choosing swimmable rivers does not mean that we take a digger to streams so they can all be dived into.

Our mightiest rivers start as gentle trickles.

Those small streams join to create larger ones that meet to create the rivers or fill our lakes or replenish groundwater.

Keeping the small ones healthy is the way we keep the big ones safe for the people who want to swim in them, the fish that rely on them and our industries that need clean water to survive.

Dr Smith also said that the cost of high standards is prohibitive.

But again, what is the cost of setting standards so low? Do we decide we pay these costs by letting children get sick, or by allowing wildlife that live only in New Zealand to die out?

Do we condemn some of our communities to drinking water that "makes people's hair fall out" like in Hurunui?

Do we decide that the outdoors culture that is deep within us as New Zealanders can be tossed out?

That the beauty that brings tourists and migrants to the bottom of the world and that we have so much pride in, can only exist the furthest reaches of our country far from where most of us live?

Do we decide not to take responsibility now and instead leave our young people with crippling environmental debt?

Poet and activist Brian Turner has made the point that with New Zealand's small population and geographic isolation, if we can't protect freshwater here, where can it be done? Let us be the leaders we know we can be.

As young New Zealanders, we are dedicated to this country.

We love it, love the people and places.

But we look ahead and see our lives and livelihoods in serious trouble with our most fundamental resource in documented decline.

How will we earn an income in a country whose competitive advantage has for the last 100 years been its intact environment?

As an Agricultural Sciences student, I include our primary industries in this.

New Zealand can and should be leading the way.

We can show the world how to work smarter with our land and water to keep it healthy, intact and thriving.

We need to come together, to bridge the divide that has developed through this issue between urban and rural communities, environmentalists and farmers.

These divides are not real. We all want the same thing.

We want clean water for our families.

Aiming high together is the way this is going to work.

We take responsibility for our whole country, the beautiful pristine parts that remain intact and the polluted drains many rivers and lakes have become.

Strong freshwater legislation establishes the vital goal of protecting freshwater and leaving it in good nick for our kids.

The priority for all New Zealanders is the health of their families and the only way we can have this is by protecting water.

As a nation we choose clean water.

We rely on our leaders to make our priority clear in the law.

It's that simple. But it must happen now.

• Marnie Prickett, Choose Clean Water tour spokesperson. Choose Clean Water will be presenting their petition to parliament on Tuesday 29 March. For more information: or "Choose Clean Water Tour" on Facebook.

Debate on this article is now closed.

Share this article



11:38 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
NZ central and local government has to really get of it's a*** and look at 100% solution to this problem using proper containment and cleaning/recycling facilities for industry and domestic waste and pollutants. NZ has been doing it dirty and cheap for far too long and is now reaping the seed it has sown. The answers are out there. When I was growing up I could drink from my local stream. That should always be the case! Chemicals and crap do not belong in our water supply.


11:38 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
Most dairy farms should be converted to normal sheep/cattle farms immediately. There should be no more dairy farms allowed,,,ever! the use of irrigation systems should be only 1 % of what it is now. We must stop this madness right now! We won't have a country worth living in very soon if this pollution continues. Our politicians need to be reminded of their responsibilities to the rest of New Zealand's population, and not to allow corporates to dictate the rules for development.


11:38 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
It is a massive problem, not the least of which is that those who have profited from dirtying our waterways will not be the ones solely footed with the bill for clean up - the clean up bill will be one paid by every single kiwi through taxes. It is called privatising the profits and publicising the losses and it is a way in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.


- Auckland
11:38 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
Many rivers are cleaner than they were in the past where raw sewerage, offal from freezing works and waste from dairy factories and the like were poured into them. I dare say the Waikato is cleaner now than 50 years ago. I am not saying this is good enough though. A similar situation pertains to the marine environment where even the smallest animals are harvested (illegally) in some coastal areas. Marine antifouling paints also has decimated the benthic and intertidal fauna in the Waitemata Harbour.

Bob, Auckland

11:38 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
"Clean Green". "100 % pure NZ". Biggest. Myth. Ever.


- St Heliers
11:38 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
NZ rivers and some of the lakes are in a pretty terrible state. About 75% of rivers have very significant pollution according to the Ministry website.

Farming is the major cause. Urban pollution affects some rivers as well but is not much associated with high nitrate levels.

Currently standards and enforcement is messy and dealt with by Councils who all treat it differently. Fonterra has some controls but they are inadequate. Nitrates are getting worse although bacteria levels have improved a bit.

We need decent water nationwide water quality standards where people can swim, and fines if the standards are not met.

Of course it wont be fixed over night and it requires respecting farmers, but it could at least start with the most used rivers.


11:38 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
if only the powers to be weren't pocketing in different forms large amounts to keep the pollution going. we need a government that is transparent, accountable (not just every election) and is working for every nz citizen, not just the ones who top up the party accounts. politicians have failed this country miserably with their greed and self centered acts.


- New Zealand
11:38 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
This is so sad to read - but unfortunately not surprising. The great gods of short term money and wealth take such importance over sustainable water and environment. We let it happen and we should be ashamed. The National Government decision to disband the Canterbury Regional Council (democratically elected) was one small event that they should be deeply ashamed of. Its both sides of the House and the various councils across the nation that have let us down. More importantly - we have let ourselves down. Lets fix it - NOW


- Northland
11:37 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
The commodity boom in Dairy prices which peaked (in NZD) in 2013 prompted much of NZ land to be converted to intensive dairy farming. Because it was more profitable.

One of the biggest culprits of this pollution is Landcorp. A government owned corporation.

What the hell is this government doing, being in the business of buying, owning and farming our land? This government thinks it's running a business. It's not. It's running a country. It's not the same thing.

Landcorp profits are directly in opposition to clean water.

It's not hard people. The link is pretty obvious.

To all those complaining about our dirty water, you've got the government you voted for.

This is what NZers wanted.


11:37 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
NZ lakes, rivers, streams and harbours now sewers; the results of a now failed industry; nice one John


- Waikato
11:37 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
Just unbelievable, and as you say, a country of small population and yet we still manage this. Mind you, if you count all the people who buy our farmed products then you could include them in a head count as kind of a ghost population.

Smith says that the cost of high standards is prohibitive, whereas in reality, the value of high standards is, in fact, priceless.

People, why do you keep this destructive government so high in the polls, do you never step outside your box in the city now to see what is going on in the rest of the country? And just who do these pollsters phone, anyway, I have NEVER been asked my view, I do not have a landline, any link, I wonder?

We actually need to get rid of this government in order to save NZ, as the way they are going there will be nothing left to enjoy before too much longer, everything having been commoditized and sold off!

daddyhotrock .

11:37 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
After dairy, tourism is our second biggest earner. The dairy industry is not very sustainable. Firstly because dairy is the main polluter and secondly, we are slowly becoming aware that milk (and baked beans, for that matter) is not really that healthy. So unless Peter Jackson's star keeps rising, we can make an estimated guess that tourism will one day be our main bread winner.

Cleaning our waterways is more than restoring a kid's playground. It's investing in the future.


- Auckland
11:37 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
Many rivers are cleaner than they were in the past where raw sewerage, offal from freezing works and waste from dairy factories and the like were poured into them. I dare say the Waikato is cleaner now than 50 years ago. I am not saying this is good enough though. A similar situation pertains to the marine environment where even the smallest animals are harvested (illegally) in some coastal areas. Marine antifouling paints also has decimated the benthic and intertidal fauna in the Waitemata Harbour.


11:37 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
It would have been far more helpful to say why the waterways are polluted and what can be done about it.

Banging on and on the same theme with no hard info is flogging a dead horse.

State the issue then state simple ways people can do something in their own world to fix the problem. Save energy they tell us, switch to the new style of bulbs. Ah ha, something concrete I can do in my own world, not wait, for eternity for the politicians to do something about it.

Tell us what we can do to help. Writing to politicians is akin to hitting yourself over the head with a stick. Doing something yourself and throwing the stick way is far more effective.


11:37 am Tuesday 23 February 2016
This article is about a storm in a tea cup.
Compare NZ with EU,Africa, North & South American Countries and then write a story.
Load more

More National