Land and Water Forum report a mixed bag

When HortNZ and Forest and Bird each issue media releases  urging the Government to implement the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum’s third and final report, its  publication is obviously a significant milestone in water management.

It is certainly a major achievement that a diverse group of iwi, recreational users, environmental NGOs, agribusiness, irrigation, and other stakeholders have found some common ground – on how water should be allocated and how water quality issues should be tackled.  The greater understanding of each other’s priorities though three years of discussion is a useful legacy of the Forum.

Yet Dairy NZ’s support for the Forum’s endorsement of collaborative decision making at catchment level is telling.  This suggests little scope for national direction by the Minister and Ministry for the Environment.  It leaves the responsibility for cleaning up rivers and lakes and safeguarding our aquifers to regional councils, to act as quickly or slowly as they wish. And when we have a weak National Policy Statement which gives councils until 2030 to set objectives and  limits on contaminants and nutrient discharges, council action could be very slow.

The lack of urgency and a political reluctance by councils to control land use intensification (which led  Fish and Game to appeal Manawatu’s One Plan to the Environment Court for example) is one reason water quality in New Zealand continues to decline.

There is a lot in the report about process –how regional councils should go about setting flow regimes and objectives and limits for water quality – but little about what those objectives and limits should be. This is the substantive detail which councils need as a basis for controls on land use to limit the nutrient and pollution load on our rivers and aquifers. National level objectives and limits can also help avoid repeated court litigation around New Zealand as stakeholders battle out what those limits and rules should be region by region.

The Forum’s April report called on the government to provide national direction by setting objectives for freshwater and defining numeric bottom lines for particular river types and situations.  Between April and November Government Ministers took this workstream off the Forum table, hence the major gap in the Forum report.

So water users such as irrigators and agribusiness appear to have got a lot of what they wanted (such as tradeable water rights and no price on the commercial use of water), without having to commit to agreed national objectives and limits for water quality.

With National’s economic plan relying on expanding irrigation, agricultural intensification and mining, I’m not confident that Government will produce useful objectives and limits for nitrogen loads, sediment concentrations anytime soon because these would risk constraining such development.

The Forum ‘s support for tradeable water rights is problematic, particularly when then is no equivalent commitment to putting a price on the commercial use of water to encourage efficiency and provide a return to community. (This could be done through a resource rental or a royalty payment as occurs with other Crown resources such as minerals).

Tradeable water rights would make water management more complex with no certainty of any environmental benefits. They risks encouraging “water barons” who amass water rights. Creating a market means “sleeper water” (water which is allocated through resource consents but is not being used) will be traded and potentially used, further reducing actual river flows or aquifer levels.

New Zealanders love to swim and fish and boat on our lakes and rivers and want them protected. To do this we need clear national objectives and limits for water quality to prevent any further decline. And we need to put a price on the commercial use of water to encourage efficiency and help fund fencing, riparian planting, and research to reduce the pollution load from intensive land use.

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