Water increasingly important in environmental perceptions

Climate change may be the world’s biggest environmental challenge, but New Zealanders are pre-occupied with issues of water quality at home — and many of them blame farmers for those problems.

The 6th biennial survey of Peoples’ Perceptions of the State of the New Zealand Environment  released today assessed peoples’ perceptions of air quality, native plants and animals, native forest and bush, soils, beaches and coastal waters, marine fisheries, marine reserves, freshwater, national parks, wetlands, urban environments, and the natural environment. Written by  Professor Ken Hughey, Associate Professor Geoff Kerr and Professor Ross Cullen of Lincoln University, the report highlights how water — particularly dirty water — has risen in the public consciousness over the past decade.

Nearly a quarter of people replying to the survey identified “water pollution and/or water” as the most important environmental issue facing New Zealand.  Farming has increased as a perceived main cause of damage to freshwater by 27 percentage points over the 10-year period of surveys (from 24.7% in 2000 to 51.9% in 2010, an increase of 110%). The full report includes recommendations to planners and policy makers and can be accessed here.

The SMC approached environmental experts for comment on the report. Additional comments will be put on the SMC website.


Dr Mike Joy, Director at Centre for freshwater ecosystem management and modelling, Massey University, comments:

“It’s interesting that New Zealanders’ perception is that environmental management has improved while at the same time all measures of the actual state of lakes and rivers show declines. This begs the question – how can environmental management be improving while the state of our freshwater declines? This result suggests to me that many people are not aware that our freshwaters are in decline. I guess that this is not surprising given the mixed messages New Zealanders are given. For example we are told on one hand 90% of our lowland rivers and almost half of our lakes are polluted, but a Yale University study is often quoted saying that we are second best in the world. The fact is that the Yale study is flawed in many ways and now they have been given the correct information we will see that New Zealand will drop a long way down the rankings next year, and it will be interesting to see how this translates to New Zealanders perceptions the next time this survey is conducted.

“The other interesting result is the increasing recognition by New Zealanders that farming is having a significant impact on freshwaters. This change in perception is despite much effort from industry groups with vested interests in farm intensification to deny this reality. Given the lag times for the effects of farming intensification to show up in freshwater monitoring It is likely that as measures of the health of rivers and lakes decline in the future more New Zealanders’ will become aware of farming impacts. Thus, in future the perceptions of New Zealanders of the state of the Environment will become more negative and hopefully this will result in increasing pressure on government to act to reduce the declines given the crucial importance of New Zealand’s “clean-green” image.”

Andrew Fenemor, water catchment management expert, Landcare Research, comments:

“My field is freshwater management and integrated catchment management as a management approach that we could look at more closely across NZ, as a way to better connect water outcomes (quality and availability) with the causes of decline, which are predominantly from land use and management practices. (Some of our work on this over the past 10 years is summarised in attached paper and in this newsletter.

“One thing that strikes me about the survey results is that responses seem to be influenced by the amount of media exposure on particular issues – I see hazardous chemicals, industry & household waste featured higher as a perceived cause of freshwater quality problems 10 years ago than now, with farming now seen as a more major cause of damage.  That seems to correlate with issues 10 years ago such as the Mapua chemical site, and now the media focus on dairy farming.

“There’s a complexity behind the knowledge about the condition of our freshwaters, and its causes, which isn’t necessarily reflected by the perceptions of people in the street – so perceptions surveys are just a part of the justification for government and sector group action on environmental issues.

“Science plays a bigger role in telling us about the state of the environment; all regional councils report on the state of the environment, but the results often don’t get much attention (its the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ syndrome), and we need to look at how big is the train coming down the track (land use intensification in this case) and when will it get here (time lags in seeing the effects on water quality can be years, in some cases decades)… excuse the mixed metaphors.

“A related comment about time lags is that they occur because contaminants (mainly nitrogen & phosphorus from farming) seep through the soil and reach waterways via the groundwater system.  Groundwater flows in the order of 1-100 m/day.  The survey shows many people Don’t Know about the state or management of NZ groundwaters, and that’s partly because you can’t see it, despite many of our towns waters supplies coming from wells.  So I’d say the survey results suggest regional councils could do more to publicise their information about groundwater levels, flow rates and quality.  A reassuring result from the survey for regional councils is that apart from Canterbury (and this was a 2010 survey before their water management Zone Committees got fully under way there), the perception of their performance at freshwater management is quite good.”

Robert Davies-Colley, Senior Scientist at National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA):

 “There is little surprise for me that freshwater remains the #1 environmental issue, even edging out climate change, in the perception of most New Zealanders – as ken Hughey and Lincoln colleagues have reported before.  However, the graph of perceived reasons for freshwater degradation shows a fascinating monotonic trend over 10 years (2000-2011) towards increasing understanding that livestock farming (from 42% of NZ’s land area) is the largest cause of water pollution in NZ (indeed it is), not (urban) stormwater (from less than 2% of NZ land area) or sewage or some other cause”.

“The public seem to be increasingly realising that it is land use, particularly pastoral farming, that is the big water polluter in NZ (via diffuse sources) not pollution coming from pipes and drains (point sources). NIWA has just hosted a major international  conference on diffuse pollution (pollution from land use) in Rotorua last week  at which six plenary speakers from NZ and overseas clearly identified that the big issue for NZ’s water quality (and the future of our lakes) is livestock farming (not just dairying).  A follow-up interview with one of our plenary speakers, Dr Kevin Parris, OECD, France can be heard on RadioNZ’s Nine-to-noon”.