New Zealand Bemoans Water Pollution, but Won't Limit Dairy

CC BY 2.0. Bernard Spragg – A view of New Zealand's stunning Milford Sound

It's uncomfortable to face the source of the pollution.

New Zealanders are more worried than ever about the state of their rivers and lakes. A poll conducted by Fish & Game New Zealand revealed that 82 percent of citizens are "extremely or very concerned" about water quality. This is up from 75 percent the year before. Martin Taylor, Fish & Game's CEO, responded to the findings:

"Kiwis are extremely worried that they are losing their ability to swim, fish and gather food from their rivers, lakes and streams. People see those activities as their birth right but over the last 20 years that right is being lost because the level of pollution in waterways has increased as farming intensifies."
The environment ministry says that two-thirds of all waterways in the country are not safe for swimming and three-quarters of the native freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction (the highest rate in the world). The level of waterborne disease is also the highest in the Western world, according to freshwater ecologist Ray Death. Four people died and 5,000 fell ill in 2016 when sheep faeces contaminated a local drinking

A big reason for this extensive pollution is the dairy industry, which has been growing rapidly over the past two decades. From the Guardian:

"Dairy stock require rich, green pastures to produce the best milk, which has led to a proliferation of irrigation and fertiliser use. As the dairy herd has increased, their nitrate-rich effluent has flowed into the waterways, asphyxiating ecosystems, causing toxic algae blooms, making indigenous food sources inedible and making it unsafe for people to swim in, drink or sometimes even touch the water."

Last year the environment minister David Parker said he would cap the number of cows allowed, but there was such outrage from New Zealanders that he backtracked on this suggestion, saying a "nutrient run-off cap is more likely" and government incentives and subsidies for changing land use.

Taylor of Fish & Game believes that legislation is needed to get the situation under control. While some farmers are making efforts to clean up their acts, others are not. "They have to be made to change." Ray Death said he hoped things would change once people started dying, but "that doesn't seem to be the case." Instead, he said there's no convincing evidence that twenty years of declining water quality has been turned around at all.

I can't help but find this intriguing. On one hand, New Zealanders are deeply concerned about poor water quality and expect the government to take action to fight it; and yet, as soon as a finger is pointed at a source whose limiting could affect livelihoods and lifestyles, they refuse to support it.

This, however, is the uncomfortable reality of environmental stewardship. We have to come to terms with the fact that the status quo isn't working, has very real consequences, and these won't go away unless we change our way of doing things. If people want clean, swimmable waterways, and consuming less dairy is a means by which to achieve that, is that not a fair trade to make? I suppose it all depends on where priorities lie. This could be a valuable lesson to the rest of us, not to mention excellent motivation to reduce the amount of animal products we consume.