Ours By Right

This last summer, new signs went up by the popular swimming spot on the Rangitikei River outside River Valley Lodge.

The signs are part of a nationwide initiative set up throughout New Zealand and administered by Regional Councils, in our case Horizons. Regional Councils in New Zealand, amongst their other roles, are responsible for environmental monitoring, and the enforcement of environmental regulations.

The initiative was conceived as being able to provide information to the general public about which sections of any river were safe to swim in over summer. The information, gained by a Horizons team member involves taking weekly water samples and having them tested. Swimmers could then follow this link and be up to date whether their favourite swim spot was safe to take a dunk.

What in particular was being tested for was E. Coli and Toxic Algae.

All good so far.

I have no doubt this is a worthwhile, and unfortunately necessary initiative.

safe to swim sign
safe to swim sign

Yet, I Find This Disquieting

What I found disquieting was thinking about the way we have used and interacted with the river we belong to, the Rangitikei, for decades, and the fact our popular swim spots now seem to need signs.

Over the generations, we have swum in our river without fear. We have drunk the water straight from the river, again without fear or even second thought. We have played in and on it, as have our children, their children, and thousands of people who have stayed at the Lodge over the years. Of course, we did not swim or drink if the river was in flood and heavily discoloured. To our knowledge none, family, friends or guests have ever come to any harm. And yet now we need signage to tell us it is safe?

When Did This Happen?

When did this happen that our river could even be a candidate for heightened levels of E. Coli and Toxic Algae? What has caused this increased risk? Is this level of risk a new thing, or have there always been spikes in E. Coli or toxic algae levels?

Because monitoring has not been going on for decades, we have to be fair and admit that there may have been spikes in previous years before the water was being regularly tested. The data from the last three years is mostly positive, though there have been E. Coli spikes. These spikes are mostly associated with flood events in spring or early summer where there have been thunderstorms that brought topsoil off farms into the river. In late summer, early autumn there has also been several spikes that corresponded with an extended period of low flows.

Toxic Algae only had enhanced levels a couple of times at low water in late summer early autumn.

The Monitoring Obscures the Real Questions

However, I think all the above obscures the real questions. These questions are – Countrywide, is there an increase in unswimmable rivers? The answer to that is yes. Over the last several decades New Zealand’s rivers have been degraded, though there is a lot of work presently being done to turn that around.

The second question is – Where is this contamination coming from? In 98% of the country, this contamination is coming off farmland, primarily due to agricultural intensification. Plantation forestry clearcutting also has a significant impact. Water flowing through urban areas is even worse.

The third question, and I think the most poignant is – Who gave anyone the right?

Who gave anyone the right, in their pursuit of profit, to harm and pollute our waterways. Who gave them permission to externalise this aspect of their operations. Externalising the cost to the ecosystem and the public.

Externalising their runoff to these waterways that for generations we have treasured, we have drunk from, swum in, from which communities have gathered kai.

No one asked my family or me or asked anyone I know that it was okay to take these treasures away from us.

No, I do not give you my permission. Your signs are an affront to something that should be ours by right.

Clean Water.

Brian Megaw

rangitikei river swim spot

The Rangitikei River just outside the lodge – a great spot for swimming

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