Put river health first - swimming, not more cows

My six-year-old’s favourite thing is swimming – he loves it.  Once he saw kids leaping into the Whanganui River, that was it.

Now, he can’t really swim yet – his doggy-paddle gets him a few metres before he starts to sink, so it wasn’t that simple.  But off to the Union Boat Club jetty we went one weekend in February and he was straight in, bombing and flipping into the river – with mum standing right there ready to jump in if necessary.

While the Whanganui might not be as pristine-looking as some rivers, I knew a lot of clean up had gone into the Whanganui since I was a teenager, rowing at Aramoho, and almost never swimming in the river.

So I did the sensible thing and checked the Horizons Regional Council website to find the river described as “fair... generally safe for swimming, except during and after recent rainfall”.

Unfortunately, this week I looked at more detailed monitoring on www.lawa.org.nz, a joint initiative between councils and research bodies, and the latest E.coli stats show a lot of red.  Of the 20 samples taken this summer, seven have been red indicating a serious problem with another five orange.  LAWA rates swimming at the Town Bridge as “high risk” and two samples taken in March showed “unacceptable” levels of E.coli.

Is that ok for Whanganui?  On a hot day, does it have to be the beach, with the risk of rips, or a swimming pool for our kids, and not our glorious river, right on the doorstep?  

Guidelines say councils should put up signs to warn people when E.coli levels are at more than 550 per 100mL, even potentially causing problems for stock drinking water at more than 1,000 units – the highest sample in March was 7,900! 

Where does E.coli come from and what can we do about it?  The answers to these two critical questions are of course complicated, but the simple start is that E.coli comes from poo – humans, birds, dogs and cows.

The first thing to do, and advice I stick to with my family, is don’t swim in pretty much any New Zealand river for two days after heavy rain – too much run-off means too much E.coli risk.

The second is make a submission – there are two options available at the moment.  Ministry for the Environment is running a consultation process on whether you want swimmable rivers – or are happy to settle for the proposed standard of “wadeable”.  And Horizons Regional Council is doing their annual consultation round so there’s a chance to influence their direction on matters related to this.

One proposal that has me puzzled in Horizons’ Accelerate25 report is “land use intensification”, AKA more dairying.  They’re even proposing a lower nitrogen standard in coastal areas.  The report quotes Canterbury as a positive example economically (which seems seriously out of touch given continued low payout predictions with dire implications for some farmers) but it studiously avoids the point, as made on the LAWA website, that “water quality in Canterbury has been in decline as a result (of) agricultural intensification over the past couple of decades.”  

That’s not the direction I want to see Horizons head, especially when statistics on dairy farm consents speak for themselves.  Only 59% were applied for by the deadline and of the 94 processed (all approved), 85% of them were “restricted”, i.e. able to leach nitrogen at a higher rate than agreed in the One Plan.  Now nitrogen and E.coli are not the same thing, but how does this approach help our rivers’ health?  And how is that fair on the 14 farmers who worked hard to apply on time and within the conditions?

I want swimmable rivers for my children and for us to avoid the mistakes made elsewhere with too many cows – that’s my submission in a nutshell.