Tourism and green groups launch water campaign

The rise in diagnosed cases of STEC infection, a toxin found in cow manure.

As the water debate heats up ahead of the election, traditional advocacy groups have united with the tourism industry and public health researchers to warn of reputational damage to our tourism and agriculture industries, and health risks for rural children.

The Choose Clean Water campaign yesterday released its own seven step "freshwater rescue plan" in response to the Government's national policy statement on water.

The steps include withdrawing all public subsidies of irrigation schemes and redirecting that money into a transition fund to support a move away from intensive dairying to more sustainable and diverse agriculture. Other steps include strict and enforceable water standards and a "polluter pays" system.

The campaign brought together Greenpeace, Forest and Bird, and Fish and Game to announce the plan. Joining them were two public health researchers and Lesley Immink, CEO of the Tourism Export Council, which represents 1300 tourism operators and suppliers.

This collaboration was highlighted by Fish and Game CEO Bryce Johnson in his own presentation at the media briefing.

"In my 30 years [in the job] I don't think I have ever taken part in an event like this, with a mix like this," Johnson said. "The issue has got so serious that everybody is absolutely circling the wagons."

"Contact with recreational water can kill you"

Potentially most uncomfortable for the Government, especially as it goes into an election, was the presentation by Otago University Public Health professor, Michael Baker, a researcher of infectious disease.

"I am here because I am very concerned about the negative public health consequences of contaminated waterways," Baker said. "For several reported infectious diseases, the rural environment is far more dangerous than it used to be."

"There are a number of infectious diseases that are strongly associated with living in a rural area and with the density of cattle and livestock."

Holding up a chart, Baker said campylobacter and cryptosporidiosis infections were an increasing concern, but more worrying was an apparent rise in cases of STEC/VTEC (Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli or E-Coli) which can cause severe kidney disease and even death. Most of those infected are young children.

"That is a disease that not everybody has heard about. It used to be very uncommon, but over the last 20 years this has gone from just a handful of cases to now being a relatively common infectious disease," he said.

"A national case control study was done to look at this disease and it found that the single most important risk factor was contact with recreational water – and personally I don't think it is acceptable in New Zealand in 2017 that contact with recreational water can kill you."

A horrific scenario

STEC is a strain of E-coli, excreted in large amounts by cattle, that produces a dangerous toxin. Baker conceded that New Zealand has long had one of the highest rates of STEC disease in humans and that better testing is behind at least some of the recent rise in identified cases.

But he said the rural environment is now so widely contaminated with the toxin that children on farms are at increased risk of becoming ill from playing in streams, lakes or even just from the mud on the farm.

"STEC is really a major emerging problem," Baker told Newsroom. "Industry is very aware of it because it's not permitted as a contaminant on beef meat, particularly to the US. This is the famous 'hamburger bug', and there is practically zero tolerance for it on export meat - but there appears to be no similar concern about it contaminating all our waterways."

Baker also warns of a "horrific scenario" that public health researchers are concerned about.

"You had the Havelock North situation where you got contaminated water going into the distribution system. If it's campylobacter, it's very unpleasant. But if it was VTEC instead, you would have scores of deaths and you would have filled up your intensive care units."

Clean green image at risk

Speaking after Baker, Immink said the members of the Tourism Council were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with squaring environmental concerns against how New Zealand is marketed.

"The tourism industry does need to be careful with some of the imagery we are sending offshore. We really shouldn't be including images of people drinking freshwater from our rivers and lakes and we also need to be careful about some of our freedom camping images," she said.

"I want to talk about our reputational damage. It's not just the tourism industry and the environment that will have reputational damage. Agricultural exports are huge and at the moment they haven't yet been tarnished with the idea of spraying polluted water on the environment that they are trying to build their business on."

Immink said she believed international visitors would be happy to pay an environmental levy, and echoed recent calls from local authorities unhappy with the new tourist infrastructure fund introduced in this year's Budget.

"The Government collects enormous amounts of GST spend from international visitors and they are giving back almost insulting amounts compared to what they give to the agriculture sector," she said.

Asked about the Tourism Export Council's involvement in a campaign critical of the Government's Clean Water Package, Tourism Minister Paula Bennett was dismissive.

"The Export Council probably doesn't understand them [the new water standards]. I would suggest that they got beyond the politics and got into the detail and then they would understand that it is about cleaning up our waterways," Bennett told Newsroom.

The Government response to the seven steps

The seven steps of the "freshwater rescue plan" were outlined by Russell Death, professor of freshwater ecology at Massey University.

Death said he had been researching freshwater in New Zealand for over 30 years, and "it feels like in that time I really have just been recording the death and destruction of our waterways as we progress from an agricultural economy that was based on producing wool to one that is now based on producing milk powder," he said.

"We need to turn away from turning our land into something it isn’t by damming our rivers and funnelling that water onto crops that the land cannot support. As a farming nation, we need to get back to actually farming 'to the land'."

Environment Minister Nick Smith rejected this as a "blunt and unsophisticated approach", saying the criticism of the Government water package was not surprising.

"Some of the Green motivated groups in my experience, no matter what the Government does, they will still criticise it," Smith told Newsroom.

"Some of the simplistic views, for instance, of stopping irrigation schemes, in my view are actually counterproductive in that well-designed water augmentation schemes can deliver both economic growth as well as improvements in freshwater quality," he said.

Smith said he hadn’t seen the figures about a rise in STEC, but would be interested in doing so.

"The overall scientific reports … show that the pathogen risk over the past ten years has neither got worse nor better but the overall standard is not good enough - and that is why the Government has an ambitious plan for improving freshwater," he said.