Water Quality and the Urban Rural Divide - TOP

Following the release of our Clear Water Action Plan we’ve had a lot of farmers asking why TOP are picking on them when urban waterways are even more polluted. We aren’t, our policy of polluter pays applies just as much to urban areas as they do to rural.

While rural waterways make up a much larger proportion of New Zealand and are therefore more important to get right, it is true that our small number of urban waterways are more polluted than their rural counterparts. TOP’s approach to polluter pays will work fairly across both. Let’s explore how.

Polluter Pays

Our core solution to the water quality problem is for polluters to pay.

Subject to pre-established bottom lines, a community comes together to set quality targets for their waterways, which will of course need to improve over time until the bottom lines of swimmable and fishable waterways are met. That will translate into allowable levels of pollution within the catchment. If a business, such as a farmer, wants to pollute more than that allowable level, they will have to pay. That money will be used to reward other farmers that choose to pollute less than the allowable level. That provides a reward for good behaviour to encourage more sustainable business activity. This philosophical approach applies equally in urban and rural catchments.

In the city

Of course there is one major difference in the city. In some catchments there might only be one or two major polluters that are causing pollution to be above the allowable level. There might be very few other businesses that can be rewarded for reducing their pollution. For example in many of Auckland’s waterways, the biggest polluter is the Council itself. During heavy rain events they allow sewage to overflow into rivers and the Waitemata Harbour. Another example is in Wellington, where a main polluter in the Owhiro Bay catchment is the city’s tip.

So how would TOP’s polluter pays system work in that situation, where there aren’t other businesses or land owners polluting less for the polluter to pay? Here’s how we see it working.

The first part of the process is the same – the local community comes together to plan the transition to a swimmable river. During that process the major polluter would have to be involved to set out how they could change their operations to meet the goals and what the likely impact would be. Either the improvements would have to come from reducing pollution or by investing in things that improve the waterway, such as riparian planting, wetlands or other water sensitive urban design.

Once the goals for improvement are set, the polluter has to meet those goals. Monitoring would be put in place, again paid for by the polluter. If for any reason they don’t meet those goals, then the polluter would have to pay for the clean up. In practice, putting a figure on the clean up costs can be difficult, so we would favour using a restorative justice process.

In this process, iwi and the local community would come together to represent the waterway, and the polluter would represent themselves. As per normal restorative justice processes, both sides would come to an agreement about appropriate recompense for the waterway. Any recompense must go to the waterway itself, not be used to produce a local playground for example.

If the parties fail to reach agreement, then the polluter would be ordered to pay a fine based on the charge for pollution we are seeing in other catchments as per TOP’s polluter pays approach, and the money would be disbursed by the Council on improving the waterway. This provides a good incentive to make sure that both sides come together to find an agreement.