Three Things We Have Learnt About Our Rivers This Week

In recent weeks we have seen a spate of reports about the state of our fresh water. First, we had a report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser and yesterday another from Statistics NZ and the Ministry for the Environment. On the back of yesterday’s report was the startling (though belated) realisation from the Government that growth has to come from adding value, not more volume. We have distilled three key lessons from these reports, but they all point to the same fact: that the Government isn’t dealing with the actual problems faced by our fresh water.

1. We don’t actually know that much

First up, the reports show how little data we actually have. It is simply impossible to manage our freshwater if we don’t first measure it. For example, in some areas, the biggest problem our rivers face is clearly sedimentation (think the East Coast), but we have no data on that.

Fresh water is a complex beast, with many important facets to measure. And we have a lot of it. Successive governments have hospital-passed this problem to Regional Councils to sort out on their meagre budgets so it should come as no surprise that we know very little about our freshwater.

The solution is simple – commercial water users that are profiting from using our fresh water resource should pay for that input. That money should be reinvested in improving our rivers and lakes, including better monitoring. This has been obvious for many years, but the Government continues to stall on putting a price on water.

2. The main problem seems to be increasing nitrogen

Different parts of the country face different issues; in some places, there isn’t enough water, with irrigation being the main use. Sediment is a major issue in some places. Urban waterways are severely degraded with high levels of bacteria and nutrients.

However, from what we do know the main problem across the country seems to be increasing levels of nitrogen in our rivers and lakes, and this is mostly a result of the intensification of farming. The Ministry for the Environment wouldn’t go as far as to point the finger at dairy farming, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out it is one of the major drivers.

Intensification of farming has increased the volume of milk, but it also increases the costs; such as irrigation, feed and fertiliser. There are also costs on the environment, including the degradation of our rivers and lakes, which if costed in would often prevent farmers from intensifying production at all. That is why it is important that polluters pay for the problems they create, which is the centrepiece of TOP’s environmental policy.

3. That means farming for value not volume

As Minister Guy noted yesterday, the solution is to farm for value not volume. This is a massive thing for the Government to admit. In the past, the Government has talked about increasing value and volume of primary exports, but in reality, their strategy has focused on increasing volume. The fact is that they aren’t doing anything about increasing value – or more accurately said, maximising fully costed profit, perhaps because they don’t know how.

As we have noted in the past we have two major problems preventing a value led strategy. Firstly, polluters don’t pay for the environmental costs of their actions, so the easy money for them will always come from increasing volume and stuffing the environment. Once you make polluters pay it will focus people’s minds on ways to make money that are environmentally compatible. Secondly, there are massive loopholes within our tax system that encourage people to invest in housing and land, which ties up all the available capital. We simply don’t have the money to invest in research or manufacturing to add value. Only The Opportunities Party is talking about closing these loopholes so that we can invest more in productive assets.