This Government’s Response to the Fresh Water Crisis - Too little Too late?

On Monday the Government released their response to our fresh water crisis. The upshot is that very little will be achieved in this term. The Government expects to start seeing improvements in the swimmability of our rivers by 2023, but if the public does return them for a second term there is no guarantee they will be in a better state than they are now.

On a positive note, the Government’s plan is asking all the right questions. It includes updating the limits set in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater, hinting at raising the low bar set by the previous National Government. This will be supported by amending the Resource Management Act and creating a new National Environmental Statement to help Regional Councils implement regulations. They will also tackle the thorny issue of Maori water rights and how to allocate the right to pollute, particularly through leaching nitrogen.

However, the plan lacks real urgency. It has taken a year to come up with a plan and will take another two years to put detail around it and consult before it is implemented.

This is disappointing given that we have a new farm for 5,000 cows being converted right now on the shores of Lake Pukaki. This isn’t just an environmental risk but also an economic one; Fonterra doesn’t even want to pick up the milk because the location is so remote.

Is this really New Zealand’s plan for growth - building dairy farms on the slopes of the Southern Alps?

The Government plan does include a focus on ‘at risk’ catchments. The only question here will be how these are defined. Are we more worried about fixing the rivers and lakes that are stuffed, or preventing more from getting that bad? If we are worried about declining water quality, surely all catchments are the priority.

It is difficult to see why it has taken the Government a year to come up with this plan to make a plan. The answer may be similar to all the other working groups and talk fests that the Government has set up since it was formed. They simply didn’t do the leg work in Opposition to have policy that was ready to implement. If that is the case, The Opportunities Party stands by the statements made in the 2017 election campaign – the Government is welcome to take our policy and use it. There is far more detail on how to improve fresh water quality (and manage scarce water resources) in our policy than there is in the Government’s announcement.

This explanation isn’t likely; Minister Parker is one of the more capable and prepared people in Cabinet, it is more probable that he has struck a roadblock with one or more of his coalition partners.

New Zealand First made a big deal about fresh water in their election campaign. They were against commercial water charges (except for water bottlers for some reason), and opposed fresh water quality regulations, preferring to trust farmers to do the right thing. It seems likely that New Zealand First are the key barrier to regulations that might improve fresh water quality, which might be why the Government is pushing the issue back to the next election year.

Their opposition to a charge on fresh water makes it very difficult to resolve Maori rights around fresh water. Unless there is a royalty (from which Maori can be offered some of the revenue), Maori will need to be given some water rights in all catchments where water is scarce. This means taking some of the rights off existing users and giving it to Maori. As we saw with fisheries this is likely to get messy and will require the Government to fund an expensive water buy back. This whole mess points to the very reason why a water charge makes sense – scarce resources should have a price to ensure they are allocated in the best way possible.

The Green Party is also very vocal in opposing market based instruments to improve the environment. Once freshwater limits are set, the question is how to allocate the right to leach nitrogen amongst farmers. The best way to do this is to ensure environmentally sound farmers are rewarded, and environmentally poor farmers have to pay more. This is The Opportunities Party policy, but is unlikely to fly with The Green Party. Their focus is likely to be on regulation, which could force farmers out of some catchments entirely, regardless of their environmental soundness.

And so we have more waiting, and more talking, despite the Minister pointing out collaboration hasn’t worked in the past. Sadly, some of our rivers and lakes can’t wait.


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