Experts react to new report of Aotearoa's 'dismal', 'appalling' fresh water

"Dismal", "appalling" and an environmental "emergency".

That's how experts have described the state of Aotearoa's fresh water in reaction to the latest national report.

An estimated 45 percent of our total river length is not suitable for swimming due to bacterial contamination.

More than two-thirds (68 percent) of monitored groundwater sites failed drinking water standards at least once.

And when it comes to our native bird species that live near fresh water, around two-thirds are either threatened with extinction or at risk of becoming threatened.

And 48 percent of our river networks were at least partially inaccessible to migratory fish.

Victoria University senior researcher at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies Dr Mike Joy said the state of our country's fresh water is "bad and getting worse". 

"There's no signs of any improvement."

The latest report shows the health of at least 45 percent of Aotearoa's monitored lakes worsened between 2011 and 2020.

And nearly half of our rivers are deemed unswimmable, a statistic that the Minister for Environment said is an indictment on our country.

When it comes to wastewater, more than 4200 overflows, blockages or failures were recorded from 2020 to 2021. 

"While the Resource Management Act was clear that you couldn't do all the things that we've done to fresh water, they were never really implemented. So we've just had a free-for-all on land-use change and intensification," said Dr Joy. 

You don't have to look far to see the consequences it has on our health. 

In 2016, Havelock North's drinking water supply was contaminated by a surface pond less than 100 metres from a bore.

More than 8000 people fell ill, four died and others were left permanently disabled.

"It's one of the largest waterborne outbreaks of its kind in the developed world. We've learnt the hard way in terms of what could happen if this pollution continues," said Dr Tim Chambers, senior research fellow at the University of Otago in Wellington.

Bacterial contamination is a worry, with 82 percent of all sites either getting worse or showing no improvement. 

Nitrate isn't much better - 51 percent - and experts are frustrated. Most figures in the 2023 report haven't been updated beyond 2020.

And only 262 groundwater sites have been used for reporting trends out of a pool of at least 1000. 

"Because of the time lags that exist in seeing change in long-term trends, we can't update indicators every year," said the Ministry for Environment joint evidence data and insights group deputy secretary, Natasha Lewis. 

The Minister for Environment David Parker said making substantial improvements to water quality is an intergenerational challenge.

And the Essential Freshwater reforms launched in 2020 will already be making some of that change. 

"We have a massive challenge on our hands," said Dr Chambers. 

And experts said the authorities need to get tough and lead the way.

"We have just no enforcement. We have nothing happening to change what we're doing," said Dr Joy.

So we can get back to what used to be taken for granted in New Zealand, having clean fresh water.