Greens raise questions in Parliament about Waikato River quality remarks

The quality of the Waikato River’s fresh water and remarks about the river by Jacqueline Rowarth this week became the subject of questions in Parliament. 

Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty kicked things off with a question to Environment Minister Nick Smtih: did he agree with the comment from Dr Rowarth, the Environmental Protection Authority’s Chief Scientist, that the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest rivers in the world?

In reply, Dr Smith said Dr Rowarth’s comments were made before she took up her position with the EPA, when she was a professor at Waikato University.

More important to the environmental debate that has been triggered by her comments, she had advised him that her comments were taken out of context.

He explained:

Water quality in the Waikato is superb and amongst the very best in the world in the upper reaches, like around Huka Falls, but deteriorates in the lower reaches due to nutrients, pathogens, and sedimentation, particularly below the confluence of the Waipā River.

The data shows that in the lower reaches these problems have been increasing in recent decades, and steps are required to reverse those trends. That is why this Government has invested over $300 million in its clean-up.

I do note the EPA does not have a role in the regulation of water quality, and its principal function is the regulation of hazardous substances and new organisms.

Delahunty followed up, asking if Dr Smith considered the comments of the EPA’s new chief scientist showed a robust understanding of science and of a waterway that has more than $8 million of Government funding dedicated to cleaning it up because it is so seriously polluted?

In reply, Smith said the Government is spending a lot more than $8 million; it is spending over $300 million (“such is the importance of Lake Taupō and the Waikato River to this Government”).

“In respect of this particular individual, I think the member should be cautious of taking her comments out of context, because, actually, in the upper reaches, the water quality is very good at Huka Falls, and it would be wrong for the Green Party to run that down.”

Delahunty then drew attention to the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society, comprising 400 freshwater scientists and professionals. In light of the way it disputed Dr Rowarth’s full claims, “should we have faith that the EPA is able to make good decisions about hazardous chemicals and water and protect our environment?”

Dr Smith said Dr Rowarth, a new appointment to the EPA, is a well-qualified scientist. The decision as to her appointment had been made independently by the EPA, “and I think this House should be cautious of being openly critical of neutral public servants, which is the new role she has, after completing her term as a professor at Waikato University”.

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