Lake Wakatipu e-coli scare symptomatic of bigger problem


A few days ago there was a report about the dying aquatic ecosystem in Lake Wakatipu, which is the water playground of Queenstown, the lake whose waters the steamer T.S.S. Earnslaw travels laden with tourists seeking a farming experience and the lake which feeds the Kawarau River. Whilst all might have seemed fine to tourists, Queenstown locals are aware of a growing problem with the fresh water quality.

In late 2017, just before Christmas, Otago Regional Council announced tests were being done for E-Coli, after it was found in Frankton Bay, which is very popular with tourists and locals as Queenstown’s water front. In March 2018 further concerns were raised about E-coli in Lake Wakatipu after high levels were again found. Now, days after a damning report into the state of the Lake Wakatipu ecosystem was released, there is another E-coli alert. Before we look at the critical factors in fresh water quality, it is important to know the role of E-coli.

E-coli is an important bacteria in ones intestine as it helps produce Vitamin K and prevent colonisation by disease causing bacteria. However it has two strains that are problematic to humans, called STEC and VTEC. The latter is not so common as STEC, which causes the vast majority of E-coli related health alerts in New Zealand. Most STEC cases in New Zealand stem from instances of people being in farm environments, drinking untreated water or consuming unpasteurized milk.

E-coli is just one problem afflicting Lake Wakatipu though.

It is important to note a host of other sources including:

  1. freedom campers,
  2. a major increase in tourism,
  3. industrial area run off that has not been adequately treated and
  4. a possibly unsustainable growth in the population around Queenstown.

Queenstown’s infrastructure struggles to handle the fluctuations from Summer to Winter in population and the resultant demands placed on it. The rate payer base are often business and property owners as many locals find it too difficult to live in a town where rent sometimes swallows their entire pay, and where many of the day to day population are transient people who are on work visas and will only be around for a few weeks to a few months before moving on. All of this limits Queenstown’s choices for infrastructure that can cope. Whilst Queenstown struggles to afford appropriate infrastructure, pollutants will continue entering the lake from sources that should be better contained.

Freedom campers are generally people looking to travel New Zealand whilst spending as little time as possible in official camping grounds. They often park in places where camping is not permitted and do not always dispose of rubbish properly.

The rapid growth of tourism in New Zealand over the last few years has become unsustainable in many respects. From a huge growth in the rental car industry and the associated increase in rental vehicles on the road, through to problems with rubbish, demands on infrastructure and a reluctance among politicians to introduce fiscal or other measures to address the problem, all of these factors are combining to cause a major headache.

With Queenstown’s growth, associated light industry has been established to support the town’s economy. However with that growth industry there does not appear to have been a matching growth in efforts to contain “grey water”, which is a nick name for storm water and industrial runoff. This winds up in streams, of which Queenstown has several nicely landscaped ones running through the town, which wind up in Lake Wakatipu.

But the biggest problem facing Lake Wakatipu might actually be Queenstown itself. Constrained as it is by its geographical features, Queenstown is spreading into side valleys and along Lake Wakatipu. In an attempt to keep the town from stagnating new developments are popping up in all directions. Nearby locations such as Arrowtown and Wanaka are becoming dormitory suburbs of Queenstown. With this growth comes an increase in artificial land cover that acts as a surface to collect pollutants; an ever more constrained infrastructure network, to say nothing of more tourists as the towns reputation grows.

Good for the economy. Crap for the environment, which ultimately as one of Queenstown’s biggest draw cards, might be crap for the economy.

Do you see a nasty cycle here?

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