Environment Minister Nick Smith’s landmark water quality policy proposal was starting to look a bit tattered last night with questions about how long it will really take to implement — and an extraordinary confession that the documents published on Thursday deliberately did not tell the full story.

Local Government New Zealand President Lawrence Yule and  National candidate for TukiTuki has told POLITIK  it will take decades to meet the water quality standards announced last week.

The goals announced by Environment Minister Nick Smith call for 90% of rivers to be swimmable by 2040.

But Yule says many rivers are affected by urban stormwater runoff which will cost a lot and take decades to fix.

He says the proposal announced last week is “complicated.”

“But it’s a step in the right direction,” he told POLITIK.

Referring to his own area, he said that people were concerned about the quality of the Tukituki River, in particular.

“But it’s not an easy thing to fix,” he said.

“But I think what the electorate wants are ambitious goals and what’s been announced by the Government goes a long way to do that.

“But it’s going to be hard to fix.


“It’s going to take a number of decades to do it.”

What Yule doesn’t appear to agree with is the Government’s goal of having 90% of rivers and lakes swimmable by 2040.

He says that people do not realise yet that much of the cost of achieving the goal will be born by town ratepayers.

“That’s one of the conversations at Local Government New Zealand that we are really concerned about.

“If you look at the water quality standards in last week’s document, then some of the worst quality standards are in Auckland and a lot of that is from urban runoff.

“In my own area, if you look at where the worst areas are, a lot of that is attributable to some kind of storm water runoff often from urban communities.

“So there’s a cost to fixing that so the same people who want better water quality are also going to have to end up paying for some of that, so that’s why this issue is complicated and why it’s going to take decades to fix.”

The complexity of Smith’s proposal has already led to a number of political problems.

At the weekend conference of the Blue Greens, former National MP Hamish Hanock argued that the documents surrounding the proposal were too complicated.

Responding, Environmental Defence Society Director Gary Taylor said that the problem was actually that they were not complex enough and left out some significant detail.

Environment Minister Nick Smith has now conceded that in a bid to make the documentation less complicated important detail was left out and that led to the avalanche of criticism which greeted the release of the proposals.

Because of that criticism late on the night of the release of the documentation he issued another press release referring people to the Ministry for the Environment website for more detail.

It turned out that the crucial missing detail; had been deliberately left out of the public documents for reasons of “simplicity”.

Smith says he left out of the main public document release a paper which explained the “swimmable” water standard in more detail.

The Ministry for the Environment document said that though the standard for swimability was that a river had to have less than 540 E. coli/100 ml that actually worked out at a median level for the river across 12 months of 130 E Coli.

That table was truncated in the document distributed by the Minister at his media conference and the higher figure was almost immediately attacked by the Greens and freshwater clean-up advocates.

Instead of using the median figure, the Minister produced an elaborate and complex account of how the changes could affect the Hutt River.

Smith said the original draft of the discussion paper was 140 pages long and it included a table which focussed on the amount of time (expressed as a percentage) that each level of water cleanliness would be required to be achieved in a river.

“Officials made the judgement call that adding that level of complexity was going to make it even harder for the public to understand but it is part of the National Policy Statement,” he said.

“And when I have talked to the water quality scientists and when they read the public discussion document they were a bit concerned.

“But they’ve said that now they’ve seen the table on the website they are happy,” he said.


Even so, it was an own goal with the first document coming under considerable attack within hours of its release.

Now with Yule suggesting Councils may not be able to to meet the target inside “decades” Smith will have more explaining to do.