Nice Plan, but What About the Water?

Image on the front of the Hamilton City River Plan. Great marketing - the implication is that the river will be safe for swimming. But will it?
Image on the front of the Hamilton City River Plan. Great marketing – the implication is that the river will be safe for swimming. But will it?

The Hamilton City Council’s monthly update arrived in the letter box and most of it is about the new Hamilton City River Plan. It’s a lovely plan, mostly about upgrading parks, further development of pedestrian walkways, and at Hayes Paddock they are even going to build a swimming hole …

… wait … what?

Yes. You did read that correctly.

River Plan Objective: To create a safer swimming experience on the river and enhance this special neighbourhood park.”

What the new swimming hole at Hayes Paddock will look like.
What the new swimming hole at Hayes Paddock will look like.

As the Council well knows from its own report released last year, the Waikato River and the lakes  are in serious trouble. This particular report is a 20 year snap shot of the river, and it highlights a disturbing rise in nitrogen levels and declining water clarity over that time, despite all the efforts that have gone in to clean up.

Excess nitrogen is a serious problem in water systems because algae love it.  While a healthy river needs some algae, excessive blooms are toxic to the aquatic ecosystem in the river.  As the Department of Conservation notes:

This may look sweet and idyllic, but dairy farming, our economic base, is destroying us. We need to do things differently, for them, for us and for all freshwater aquatic life.  [(cc) Dave Young, 2007]
This may look sweet and idyllic, but dairy farming, our economic base, is destroying us. We need to do things differently, for them, for us and for all freshwater aquatic life.
[(cc) Dave Young, 2007]
“Excessive nutrients in runoff from land used for intensive agriculture will alter the natural composition of algae in streams and rivers. If the natural balance is disturbed algal blooms may occur, causing undesirable discolouration, scum and odours and even toxic effects.”

“Runoff and leaching of nitrogen from pastoral farming accounted for much of the increased nitrogen levels.” In other words, the dairy industry upon which the economy of the Waikato, if not the whole country, is based, are the most responsible.

Rivers we can swim in was a popular slogan during the election. All parties were falling over themselves to promise better waterways. The Green Party leading the charge.
Rivers we can swim in was a popular slogan during the election. All parties were falling over themselves to promise better waterways. The Green Party leading the charge.

The Council has a problem. Because as Norman Baker, chairman for the subcommittee on land and water quality admits, “In all our conversations with the community, water quality is their No 1 concern.”  Swimmable rivers and the loss of freshwater fish stock even became an election issue.

People want to swim in the river, but the dairy industry wants to intensify.  The water is already undrinkable without treatment to kill giardia, cryptosporidium and other bacteria and viruses, and to remove unsafe levels of arsenic from the the Wairakei Geothermal Power Station.   Most of the lower Waikato is too dangerous for swimming, as the levels of Escherichia coli (‘E. coli‘) bacteria are too high.

What the Hayes Paddock swimming spot currently looks like.
What the Hayes Paddock swimming spot currently looks like.

The Waikato is a fast flowing river and the Hayes Paddock spot where the jetty is, is one of the few safer places that is still deep enough to swim. It is also upstream from the city – bacteria levels are lower.

While the planned Hayes Paddock swimming hole is a great idea; a lot safer for children, no chance of getting pulled into the current and I guess they can monitor and ‘clean’ the water for swimming better because it is contained for awhile, I hope this isn’t the council throwing in the towel – a way to satisfy ratepayers with a pretty and more usable river front (see there is even a place to swim!!) without having to stand up to the dairy industry.

“Mr Vant said the Waikato River ranked highly compared to rivers in other developed countries, but New Zealanders had different expectations of their waterways.

“New Zealanders have high standards and expect to be able to swim in their rivers while other countries don’t have that expectation.

“While the overseas comparisons are interesting, people will argue that we should compare our river to how we want it to be.”

(The Waikato River in Decline, 2013) 

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