Rivers & streams – do we care?

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“Of course we do,” says Trees for Survival National Manager Don Roa. “In fact, Trees for Survival was founded in 1991 to involve school children and their communities in planting trees to control erosion and to improve water quality in our streams and rivers. We were one of the first community organisations to take action and do something about the rapidly deteriorating health of our national waterways. Naturally we want to continue to do our bit and be involved in any future strategies which may emerge.”

Recently TfS Patron Anne Salmond, in response to two damming articles in the New Zealand Herald by Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons (1,2), is quoted as saying we should “treat rivers as taonga, not toilets”. She supported the writers’ fingering of dairy farming and the increased rate of conversion to dairying as the major culprits wrecking our waterways, but she also included forestry, horticulture, wine producers as well as urban dwellers.

These views were further supported by Parliamentary Commissioner Jan Wright who said, “Even with best practice mitigation, the large-scale conversion of more land to dairy farming will generally result in more degraded fresh water.”


An unfortunate all too common feature on NZ farms

A fenced-off and planted riparian strip – a necessary first step for NZ rivers and streams

In taking these “doomsayers” to task, Rod Oram wrote in the Sunday Star Times: “This year New Zealand will achieve a historic breakthrough on freshwater management. We’ll begin setting effective quality and quantity standards in all river catchments.

“Over time, these bottom lines will drive better environmental performance by all sectors – rural and urban – and set farming on a more sustainable and profitable path.”

In suggesting serious progress, he went on, “The three (writers) failed to take account, however, of a fundamental shift in understanding, principle and practice by farmers, other water users and government over the past five years.”

As the debate rages on it is important to realise that nearly 200 years of environmental abuse will not be fixed quickly or easily, and there are many varied aspects and causes to be addressed.

Dirty dairying, conflicts over irrigation proposals and the swimmable status of our waters continue to grab headlines. However, the Ministry for the Environment website lists the following environmental indicators for the measurement of fresh water quality:

  • concentrations of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus in rivers and lakes, and nitrate in groundwater)
  • concentrations of the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli) in rivers and lakes, including freshwater swimming spots
  • visual clarity in rivers and lakes
  • water temperature in rivers
  • dissolved oxygen in rivers
  • richness of macro invertebrate species  in rivers.
  • volume of water allocated to human uses.

All of these factors need to be considered and mitigated close to optimum, if a stream or river is to be returned to its healthy state.

A focus on one indicator, such as the concentration of E. coli in a river or stream, takes no account of the interaction of environmental factors leading to a balanced water ecosystem. For example, it is a well known fact that sediment in a river will mask the quantity of E. coli – a feature of rivers in flood is that increased quantities of the bacterium are released.

Don Roa says, “We lose between 200-300 million tonnes of soil every year to the oceans – 10 times the world average! The economic impact of this loss is huge, and just like the fouling of our waterways with E. coli by dairying, the mitigation of the loss of our soils to streams, rivers and the sea needs a focus too.”


Flooding on the Rangitikei River

The silt laden Hoteo River impacts on the marine environment

Agricultural activity, in addition to releasing E. coli, is responsible for increasing the concentration of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. These nutrients get into rivers and streams particularly where stock have access. There is a move to ensure that farmers fence off their water but an even greater focus on riparian planting is needed.

With school children and their communities, TfS works planting trees to prevent erosion which causes the release of sediment to our waterways. Riparian plantings are also a key component of the TfS programme, recently enhanced by 15 schools working with the Waikato River Authority to plant the banks of the Waikato River.

Since 1991 TfS has planted over 1,000,000 trees to help prevent erosion and to improve the quality of New Zealand waterways and last year TfS schools and their communities around New Zealand planted another 70,000 trees.

There is so much more to do. Planting trees may not be the total answer for the restoration of the waterways but long term it is by far the best option currently available.  What TfS has done over the past 20 or so years is a great platform for future action. Students who have participated in the TfS programme in the past know the importance of what they did and along with TfS will surely want to be part of any concerted community action in the future.


Shag River, Otago – winner of the NZ River Awards 2013

Planting and fencing will largely prevent this

The Land and Water Forum has been working to develop a ‘shared vision and a common way forward’ since 2009, the Commissioner for the Environment presented her report: Water quality in New Zealand: Land use and nutrient pollution late last year and the government has produced the National Objectives Framework for Freshwater; the discussions and submissions will go on.

Sure, there is greater understanding by water users than there used to be but, while the politicians and economists talk, let’s get serious about planting more trees!

TfS students working on a riparian strip


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