National Government Refusing To Put A Price on Water - TOP

The Prime Minister is refusing to put a price on water before the election because there are too many issues to resolve, particularly the issue of water ownership as we pointed out last week

So what is the Government doing on fresh water? After setting the ‘bottom line’ for water quality as “wadeable” rather than swimmable back in 2014, they have now set a target for 90% of rivers and lakes to be “swimmable” (according to a new definition) 80% of the time by 2040. This should, if successful, see some small improvements in a few aspects of fresh water quality, particularly by keeping most stock animals out of rivers. Meanwhile the small print gives them enough wriggle room to keep the costs down.

The Government’s latest plan on fresh water is another timid step forward, but their claim it is a giant leap makes them look foolish. Let’s look at five reasons why.

1. Cost and Ambition

The Government claims that this change is ambitious, and to back this us up they cite that it will cost $2b over time. We haven’t had time to review these costs, but regardless the question is who will pay? The Government has made a big deal of the fact that they are paying $100m to improving water quality. But why is the taxpayer funding this? The Opportunities Party environmental policy states that polluters should pay to clean up their mess. It should simply be part of the cost of doing business.

2. Sorta swimmable, some of the time

For many water bodies you care about this announcement could potentially make little difference to whether you can swim when you want to.

By including 90% lakes and rivers, Government doesn’t have to deal with the real basket cases like Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora. The numbers are bolstered by including a lot of highland rivers where nobody swims – so the 10% that aren’t swimmable could be the ones near you. The Government promise also doesn’t need to guarantee swimmability all the time, just 80% of the time. Summer is 25% of the year, and that is pretty much the only time most of us would swim in rivers and lakes. Summer is also the time when lakes and rivers are likely to have problems with algae and low flow.

3. Would you swim in it?

NIWA has spent a lot of time assessing how low the various pollutant counts need to be in order that a water body be swimmable, including bacteria and clarity (affected by sediment and algae). But for this announcement the Government are saying that in rivers they will just use poo (E. coli) as an indicator, and in lakes they will just use algae. What about algae in rivers and poo in lakes? What about sediment in both? So the questions are would you swim in a river when there is dangerous cyanobacteria present, no water or you can’t see your feet, and would you swim in a lake full of poo? Government says yes that’s fine, it’s swimmable.

While action to reduce poo in rivers and algae in lakes has to be a good thing, clearly it reflects an unrealistically limited ambition for protecting fresh water. The Opportunities Party says this is nuts – our environmental policy will make polluters pay for all types of pollution (including using fresh water for commercial purposes), and use that money to subsidise businesses that are improving the environment.

4. Will you get sick afterwards?

This has been the topic of much debate with the Green Party and environmental groups claiming that the new rules mean people have a 1 in 20 chance of getting sick if they swim in a ‘swimmable river’. The Government has responded that these claims amount to “junk science”. What are the facts?

It all comes down to the indicator of poo in the water, E. coli. More E. coli means a greater chance of getting sick. E. coli concentrations of around 540 cfu/100mL mean a 1 in 20 chance of getting sick. The trouble is that levels of E. coli in our waterways fluctuate, especially after rain, so the risk of getting sick can vary widely depending on the conditions. Currently a river can have E. coli concentrations >540 cfu/100mL up to 5% of the time and be considered ‘swimmable’. Under the Government’s new regulations that has increased to up to 20% of the time (as long as the median level is below 130 cfu/100mL).

So it comes down to how much risk you are willing to take when you take the kids for a swim. The Government should have produced a range of costs showing how much each step of reducing the risk of our kids getting sick when they swim, would be. Instead they are trying to baffle us with science and shifting definitions.

5. Hospital passes to Regional Councils

This particular announcement is a step forward, particularly the confirmation that stock will be excluded from most waterways (except on land of more than 15 degrees in slope). However to really ensure poo and soil doesn’t end up washing into waterways, a decent riparian margin is needed. Government has chosen to make no comment on this issue, and has instead hospital passed it to Regional Councils to resolve. Similarly the Government hasn’t yet tackled the really tricky issue of the ecological health of our waterways, particularly the levels of nitrogen that can increase the risk of algal blooms. As we pointed out last week they are even lagging behind the consensus of farmers and environmental representatives. 

The Opportunities Party supports any progress on our fresh water problems, but the Government’s current effort is trying to put lipstick on a pig. This policy should have been touted as what it is: a modest, timid step forward – the same old, same old reluctant incrementalism from National. As with their climate change approach, it invokes smoke and mirrors, shifting goalposts and obfuscation. What is it about environmental goals that terrifies them so? They really do need a lesson in basic economics and consumer preferences – and while they’re at it, wrest themselves from the undue influence of dirty industries.


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