Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A Yarn to Dr Mike Joy, Freshwater Ecologist and Water Quality Expert, Part 1

The Horizons region, which incorporates Whanganui and the Manawatu is home to some of New Zealand's most polluted waterways and, seemingly as a consequence, one of our staunchest advocates for clean water. Dr Mike Joy is a Senior Lecturer at Massey University's Institute of Agriculture and Environment and today he shouted me breakfast and answered a few questions about Water Quality. I think that the first time I heard about Mike was after his criticism of the "100% Pure New Zealand" branding. A somewhat annoyed John Key was confronted by Hard Talk's Stephen Sachur, on BBC World, with Joy's views on this slogan, based on his research. Key's dismissal of the facts in this interview were nothing short of astounding. Truth be told, it was after watching John Key flippantly dismiss Joy's research as "his opinion," that I also got annoyed, annoyed enough to walk the length of the country. And now I have reached Palmerston North.

Instead of recording the interview, we had a chat about various issues and a bit of a laugh. I listened and asked questions as I made my way through some tasty mince on toast. While I was in Whanganui I met Horizons regional councillor Rod Pearce who told me that all four major rivers (the Whanganui, Whangaehu, Turakina and Rangitikei) in the region had shown decreased levels of nitrates in the water this year. I put this to Mike and he agreed that this may be true but that this improvement is minimal when you consider that these rivers had extremely high concentrations and had effectively gone from terrible to not quite so terrible. In 2009 the Manawatu quite famously ranked as one of the most polluted rivers in the western world.

The thing about water pollution is that groups tend to deny it is happening or pretend that it is everyone else's issue. I asked Dr Joy if dairy diffuse pollution really was responsible for the majority of the water quality degradation in the area; his response was "yes." He mentioned that he is often criticised for unfairly picking on the dairy industry but asserted "I'm not anti dairy" backing this up by citing some of the other targets of his scrutiny such as the Fielding waste water treatment system, which has repeatedly violated it's consent criteria over the years (so much for 14 times New Zealand's most beautiful town).

When you talk with him, it is clear that Dr Joy's agenda is simply clean water and that isn't surprising given the state of the water where he lives. Now, I'm sorry to quote Wikipedia, and it isn't very scolarly of me, but time is of the essence when you are trying to get to Bluff before Easter. 'In 2011, A report by the Ministry for the Environment ranked 76 New Zealand sites for water clarity and E. coli levels. Using those measures, they found four other New Zealand rivers rate worse than the Manawatu (the Waitara, Whanganui, Waipa and Rangitikei).' That's three of our five worst rivers in the Horizons region.

Much of the Whanganui's pollution problem has arisen from prolific numbers of point source discharges from industry and waste water systems but many of these have been eliminated. What has increased dramatically is dairy intensification in the upper catchments of the river. Removing one source of pollution only to increase another seems ludicrous. We chatted for a while on pending changes in environment law, which will dramatically impact on our environment. While recent moves by Fonterra to fence waterways have been a dramatic step, and Federated Farmers have made big strides to change their rhetoric from "there is no problem" to "there is a problem", the proposed changes to the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management will allow nitrate concentrations to approach toxic levels. This, is in addition to changes to the Resource Managment Act, which will, according to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment," alter the functions of the RMA and erode its environmental protections."  These changes amount to a pollution bonanza and if we are already facing almost universal degradation of our lowland fresh water, where will this lead us? When you consider these alarming facts, Dr Joy's opinion was, unsurprisingly, as dubious as my own regarding a change in industry rhetoric, in that it is more about spinning the issue to soften public opinion, than a genuine intention to change. He points out that if regulations are this slack, then people can't really be blamed for doing what they are legally entitled to do in order to make money.

*There is much more to cover from our conversation which I will publish in a second part of this interview when I reach Wellington in around two weeks time. My apologies to any grammar fiends out there; I am in a rush. Right now the library is about to close and I must go to get groceries and find a place to camp. Tomorrow it's up into the Tararuas! Many thanks to Mike who really is a great Kiwi. Have a look at some of his stuff online.

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