It is not aspirational to swim in our rivers or go whitebaiting in spring. As New Zealanders we take it for granted. We need water to survive and thrive but it has become highly political. Dr Mike Joy is a scientist who publicly advocates for the protection of the (rapidly diminishing) quality of the water in our waterways. He is effective.
The Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, dismissed his expertise on a May 2011 BBC Hardtalk interview, ‘He’s one academic, and like lawyers, I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview’. Dr Joy was later accused of sabotaging New Zealand’s tourist industry for daring to suggest as fantasy the ‘100% pure’ New Zealand label, following a November 2012 article in the New York Times.
Dr Joy’s academic achievements are impressive. Following his 2003 PhD in Ecology at Massey on The development of predictive models to enhance biological assessment of riverine systems in New Zealand, he helped develop software for an index to biotic integrity (a tool for analysing ecoystem health). His CV cites numerous articles and book chapters (sometimes with his colleague Russell Death: joy and death ‒ an apt aquatic metaphorical pairing).
This on top of a full load of teaching and student supervising as a senior lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Science at Palmerston North’s Massey University. Honours include the 2014 Royal Society’s Charles Fleming Award for Environmental Achievement and North and South magazine’s 2009 Environmentalist of the Year.
I talked to Dr Joy to find out more about his motivation for promoting water quality. He told me that in the years following his PhD ‘all I was doing was cataloguing the decline of waterways in New Zealand and as a Kiwi I couldn’t do that because of my belief that I grew up in this clean green country’ and ‘I got angrier and angrier at how politicised the process was’. ‘Science was being negated by policy at a higher level and we have just seen that with the NPS’ (the Ministry for the Environment's recent National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management).
His answer is democratic engagement: ‘Democracy only works if the public knows what is going on and the public seemed to be so unaware about freshwater– I had to get that reality out to people so they could make that decision at election time’. He is angry that swimming and fishing in our rivers is now considered aspirational by a Government which has set standards merely for ‘secondary contact’ such as wading.
He was stunned by the Prime Minister’s assertion in the BBC Hardtalk interview that his evidence based on scientific fact and measurement was just ‘opinion’, with the implication that another scientist could provide a picture more favourable to the tourism image. But ‘you can’t change the facts’.
He explains that degradation is a consequence of human actions and economists and politicians may believe in unlimited growth but the ecosystem doesn’t work like that. The reaction to the New York Times article was nastier and more personal ‒ ‘classic blame the messenger’. ‘I felt horrible that I put so much of my life into this [work] because I do care, the opposite of what I had been accused of… but at the same time when something like that happens I get a huge amount of support’. It also encouraged him to keep speaking out.
The Prime Minister’s lack of understanding of science highlights a political standpoint that another opinion, in Dr Joy’s words, ‘would make it all go away’. It also seems that some water scientists are limited in their ability to speak out by their contractual obligations. Dr Joy is in a position to embody the ‘critic and conscience’ role of the university and he is using it. He’s also a skilled communicator, necessary when talking about the complexities of pollution, nitrogen, phosphorous, cyanobacteria and the impact on the land and water of 90 million people equivalents (a cow equals about 17 times each human’s environment impact) from intensive dairying.
It is scary that a small child might die from cyanobacteria – the black sludge that grows on the rocks, which has already killed dogs in the Hutt River. Some waterways already have notices warning against human contact.
I asked Dr Joy about some recent media comments others have made. Firstly, that our water quality is much better than other countries. Dr Joy explains that in many countries the headwaters, including in New Zealand, start cleaner and become more polluted the further down you go. New Zealand is particularly laden with nitrogen and phosphorous mainly from dairying, as well as other pollutants from industry.
On ecosystem respiration the Manawatu River has the worst measurement in the world. ‘But the new standards are extremely weak and will allow our waterways to become much more toxic before regulation is required. Under the National Policy Statement the worst rivers in the world would only score a B or a C. But the facts are that we have the highest proportion of threatened species in the world, and the highest proportion of threatened native species in the world’. Four out of five whitebait species are now on the way to extinction.
Another comment I’ve heard suggested that we only monitor the worst sites so the figures veer towards the negative end. Dr Joy says the opposite is true as the monitoring is mainly happening in areas of higher public use such as swimming sites which have better quality than the unmonitored (‘otherwise why would the public use them?’), but still 60% failed safety tests. On a robust Ministry of Health measure which the Government no longer uses ‘62% of all rivers would fail a [human] contact reaction’. Regional councils choose to monitor, on average, only 70 sites. The Land Air Water Aotearoa website reports water quality results.
A common political response is that we can’t afford to clean up the rivers as dairying and industry is too important for our GDP. But as Dr Joy says GPD and other economic measures are flawed models for the environment as the Christchurch earthquake and oil spills are also good for GDP. The current economic assumption is that if not used for dairying the land is not doing anything of value. For example a local wetland is valued at $43,000 per hectare per year for its use in flood mitigation, nutrient stripping, and other ecosystem services, but only about $3000 per hectare per year as a dairy farm – but only its potential value for dairying is considered for GDP.
The suggestion I heard recently that water running to the sea is just wasted draws an indignant response. ‘What about the cultural value, the swimming, the eels?’ The Ministry for the Environment’s latest NPS booklet suggesting 85% of water is ‘unused’ indicates a ‘total lack of understanding’.
Dr Joy speaks regularly with politicians and policy people including those at Fonterra and Federated Farmers and finds there are concerned people everywhere. However, effective regulation remains elusive.
Is he optimistic or pessimistic about the future? A natural optimist, he also despairs of the lack of awareness of the urgency of the problem and the strength of lobbying for vested interests and against regulation, as indicated by the NPS. But he has faith in New Zealanders to use democracy to take back our birthright of healthy waterways. He has contributed to a new book: Beyond the Free Market: Rebuilding a just society in New Zealand.Philanthropist Gareth Morgan now has a river monitoring website. So far Labour, the Greens, and the Māori Party have committed to swimmable rivers.
My take away message from my discussion with Mike Joy is that we will not get effective regulation until we the people demand it. Otherwise swimming, whitebaiting, eeling, fishing and other recreational uses of our waterways will become mere historic nostalgia. So please, vote for clean water.