Of the 1000 people involved in the survey, conducted on behalf of Fish and Game New Zealand, 75 per cent said they were extremely or very concerned about the pollution of lakes and rivers.
Pollution came second to the cost of living but Kiwis felt it was more important than the state of the health system, 74 per cent, and child poverty, 68 per cent.
Fish and Game chief executive Martin Taylor said the survey covered a variety of issues which also included housing, 65 per cent, education, 63 per cent, and climate change, 61 per cent.
“People are fed up by pollution, particular by intensive corporate dairying, which has robbed them of their ability to swim in their favourite rivers and lakes.”
The poor state of the country’s waterways was affecting New Zealand’s clean, green image overseas, he said.
“Our clean, green reputation gives us a valuable international marketing advantage, but we have been squandering it.
“Losing our clean, green image means less tourism earnings and lower prices for our sheep and beef exports and other agriculture products. Why should all New Zealand farmers miss out on good returns because of dirty dairying?”
Of the 75 per cent who were concerned in the November survey, 26 per cent were “extremely concerned”, while 49 per cent were “very concerned”.
Of the remaining 25 per cent surveyed, 18 per cent were ambivalent, 5 per cent “not that concerned” and 1 per cent not concerned at all.
Fonterra spokeswoman Cilla Duncan said they had not seen the details of the Fish and Game research, but said they care deeply about New Zealand’s lakes and rivers.
“Our farmers are working extremely hard to improve the country’s rivers.
“That includes investing around a billion dollars to fence 98% of significant waterways, plant riverbanks, build wetlands and install effluent management systems that help prevent nitrogen leaching.
“All intensive land uses have had an impact on New Zealand’s water quality, which is why we must come together to address the issue.
“We hope Fish & Game can work collaboratively with us to make clean rivers, lakes and streams a reality for all Kiwis,” Duncan said.
Taylor said the survey results showed the Government needed to act swiftly to help sort the problem.
“These results are consistent with what we saw in the election and show the depth of feeling Kiwis have about the loss of what they considered their birth right – clean rivers, lakes and streams.”
Taylor said he wasn’t surprised at the amount of concern amongst Kiwis but he was surprised that it was deemed higher priority than child poverty and health.
“No I wasn’t surprised because there’s a growing awareness amongst Kiwis that we’ve got a real problem with water pollution and that’s only been reinforced with the stories of toxic lakes, Taupo and Ellesmere … Kiwis know that and understand it and want it to change.
“I am surprised that it was number two on the issues list there … especially when you consider the amount of money that Fonterra has been pouring in on their TV ads showing that all is well and beautiful.”
As for how to tackle the issue, that was more complex, he said.
“No one is saying that we can make some change tomorrow and it will all go away. It’s taken us 15 years to get into this situation and it’s probably going to take us another 15 years to regain that.
“We need a national water policy statement that actually sets limits at a level that will restore the environment, not just stop it getting any worse … there has to be intervention from the Government and it has to be clear and it has to be fast.”
Taylor wanted the Government to impose regulations on the dairy industry as he believed the status quo wasn’t working.
“The industry cannot be trusted. Self regulation does not work and toxic lakes and rivers have proven that.
“This is a major challenge to put right. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and hundreds of millions of dollars to reverse corporate dairy farming’s environmental impact.”