The Choose Clean Water Tour

The water quality in New Zealand rivers is declining due to the intensification of agriculture and inappropriate irrigation. In 2007 NZ had 5.3 million dairy cows. By 2015 this had increased to 6.7million. Cow effluent containing gut E coli bacteria is carried into streams and rivers. Waterways flowing through pasture areas have E coli levels 40 times higher than the natural level. Fencing and planting helps to reduce waterway contamination but legislation does not apply to streams less than 1m across or to waterways on non-dairy cattle farms. Cow urine goes directly into the ground taking lots of nitrogen with it. Eventually this nitrogen ends up in our streams and lakes. Nitrogen combined with phosphorus is plant food so more algae grow in the water. This changes the ecology and the stream wildlife (macroinvertebrates and fish) suffer. Native fish and trout numbers are declining in many rivers.  Some of these algae if eaten can kill livestock and dogs, while touching it can cause vomiting, diarrhoea and skin irritations in humans.

choose clean water tour participantsIn January Kyleisha Foote, Marnie Prickett, Geoff Reid, Paul Boyce and Ben Sarten set off on the Ichoosecleanwater Tour. Sponsored by the Tourism Export Council and others they visited 25 rivers and lakes. Travelling in one car and camping along the way their mission was to record the stories of New Zealanders who have been affected by the decline in water quality in our rivers. They edited the videos on a laptop connected to an inverter in the car and posted the videos on Facebook as they went.  Each day a new story was released, each one with a different slant on the same tragic tale.  The ichoosecleanwater tour received excellent TV and press coverage and the videos have been viewed thousands of times.

Sam Mahon, artist, powerfully described how his river rarely flows and when it does there are no salmon. His children can no longer swim safely in his river. “One dairy farm puts down the pumps and they don’t just suck out the water, they suck out all the memories, all that background to our lives. You try and tell me that irrigation for private gain is good for us, good for the country….you’re going to take a lot of time to convince me.”

A couple of young children expressed their sense of loss now that pollution prevents them from swimming where they have been able to in the past due.  A young mother from Geraldine described how the local Waihi River is now unsafe due to toxic algae and E Coli. Poet, Brian Turner, described how nature had become a suite of commodities rather than a community to which we belong.

Sean Elias cattle in lakeThe common theme was a sense of losing a public asset – the clean water in our rivers – for the private gain of a few. The cattle of Dame Sean Elias were found wading in a clear high country lake but no action will be taken against the owners. Tireless campaigner Millan Ruka documents cows repeatedly found in water ways in Northland yet time and again no action is taken and these farmers get away with it.

Millan Ruka cows in streamThe freshwater legislation is now under review. You can help push for a stronger water protection by signing the ichoosecleanwater petition calling for the minimum standard for waterways to be raised from ‘wadeable’ to ‘swimmable’ and for the priority for freshwater legislation to be the health of people and the environment at


Richard Hursthouse


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