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On February 23, the Government unveiled a plan to ensure that 90% of New Zealand’s fresh waterways are “swimmable” by 2040. Presently only 72% are considered safe to swim in.
The 23-year plan is estimated to cost more than $2 billion for local councils and farmers.
Bill English described the proposal as an attempt to find a “practical balance” between appeasing primary production and reclaiming a presentable and liveable natural environment for New Zealanders.
Under the proposed classification system waterways would be required to contain less than 540 E. coli units per 100ml of water for at least 80% of the time to be considered ‘swimmable’.
A river of these conditions would be classed as ‘fair’. A ‘good’ classification would fulfil the requirements of ‘swimmable’ freshwater 90–95% of the time, and ‘excellent’ upwards of 95% of the time. These grades would be added to existing data published on the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa website.
Under the proposed system the Hutt River has been labelled as ‘swimmable’ but is susceptible to higher risk around Melling Bridge. Wainuiomata River carries a similar status. Waikanae River presently holds a weak but passable rating while other monitored sites in the Wellington region generally have good ratings.
The ‘swimmable’ target incorporates a controversial higher acceptable potency of E. coli: an increase from 260 units per 100ml of water to 540 units per 100ml of water (previously considered by the Ministry of Health to harbour “moderate risk” of infection).
The risk of catching water-borne disease is one chance in a hundred or less in water containing 260 E. coli units per 100ml. Whereas a potency of 540 E. coli units per 100ml has a risk factor of one in twenty or less.
The Green Party, freshwater ecologist Mike Joy, and health experts are skeptical of the policy due to the “shifting of the goal posts” for water quality standards, and have referred to it as “deceptive.”
Minister for the Environment Nick Smith responded to these criticisms by emphasising that in conjunction with a maximum permissible E. coli level, the adherence to a far lower median value of E. coli (130 units per 100mL of water) would ensure a legitimate standard for ‘swimmable’ freshwater.