Poor water governance has led to lost economic opportunities according to the Land and Water Forum.
Water scarcity in some areas, pollution, animal and human health came within the scope of the high level report prepared by the forum for the government.
A year ago, nearly 60 water stakeholders were tasked with putting aside competitive differences to find some common ground in order to better use New Zealand’s freshwater resources.
The group now produced a list of 53 recommendations for the government to consider with limits for quantity and quality at the top.
The forum’s report is the latest effort to establish ground rules for the establishment of some consistent management practices over what has become one of the most contentious resource use issues New Zealand is facing.
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Its executive summary identifies that water is vital to New Zealand’s economic development.
“But our water management is getting increased scrutiny from new Zealanders concerned at declined water quality, from tourists and from overseas buyers driven by their customers’ insistence that their suppliers follow good environmental practices,” the forum said.
“It is in all our interests to maintain and improve the quality of freshwater.”
In 2003, the Labour-led government launched the sustainable water programme of action with a broad plan to use regulatory tools within the Resource Management Act to deal with issues.
Just one national environmental standard was implemented in six years concerning sources of human drinking water.
The Land and Water Forum was an attempt to draw together a broad spectrum of stakeholders in order to find some common ground to drive the future direction practical freshwater management.
The challenge now is for the government to provide a response to address the recommendations with a galvanising plan of action.
Given that water reform was part of the National Party’s campaign platform, a close look at the report and a quick tally of its favoured recommendations will soon be worked up.
Among them will likely be acceptance of the need for a national freshwater governing body.
The forum has recommended a non-statutory National Land and Water Commission be established – on a co-governance basis with iwi.
This new commission would develop and then oversee the implementation of a National Land and Water Strategy.
However, the key to any success this might have will be action.
Lobby group Water New Zealand chief executive Murray Gibb has endorsed the idea of central control.
“Other developed countries have central water agencies, with someone in overall charge of policy,” he said.
In contrast, New Zealand has nine government departments involved in water alongside 12 regional regulators and 73 local bodies.
“None of these agencies are in overall charge of our water.”
Mr Gibb said the system worked when water was not under any pressure.
“That has no changed with stresses developing round higher standards, methods of allocation, assimilative capacity and competing demand,” he said.
In addition, Mr Gibb is supportive of Treaty of Waitangi considerations in the report.
“A coherent governance system for water could not be achieved until iwi claims in regard to the Crown’s legal obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi were properly addressed,” he said.
“Establishing a co-governance arrangement with iwi sitting on the National Land and Water Commission will go some way towards achieving that end.”
Mr Gibb said Water New Zealand was also pleased with a recommendation to investigate the way urban reticulated water services are managed and organised.
“Auckland governance reforms will see one water business serving the needs of 1.4 million people, leaving 66 to each service on average 44,000 customers. This is at odds with trends towards best practice and definitely warrants further investigation.”
Chaired by former diplomat Alastair Bisley, the 58 groups that were part of the forum needed to work together constructively – at odds with previous experience that would have seem at least some of them face off at resource consent hearings and the Environment Court.
Just another report
While Environment Minister Nick Smith and Agriculture Minister David Carter have congratulated the disparate collection of groups for finding some consensus in creating the forum’s report – others say it’s just another document.
Federated Farmers water spokesman Lachlan McKenzie said the report reflected a major journey, but does not create future policy.
However, he said he was grateful that the process that led to the report showed that it was actually possible for stakeholders to work together.
“Federated Farmers has genuinely committed itself to the forum process but that does not mean we have committed our members to the recommendations contained in the report. The hard work of making collaborative processes successful has only just begun,” Mr McKenzie said.
Business NZ chief executive Phil O’Reilly agreed that more work was needed.
“Water allocation and quality are crucial issues for the future of the New Zealand economy and the country needs certainty about how these will be managed,” he said.
“Now the forum has identified some of the key issues, work needs to begin on setting up a lasting frame work that caters to the needs of all water users.”
In 10 categories, the forum wrote recommendations to set limits for quantity and quality of water; good practice targets and provided for water allocation considerations.
Rural water infrastructure was ring-fenced with a recommendation to establish regional rules within a framework of national policy.
The forum has also challenged the government to quickly create a National Policy Statement.
Another recommendation suggested water services infrastructure should be investigated to consider the potential benefits of rationalisation, including the possibility of a national regulator with oversight of pricing and performance issues.
The forum will now run a series of workshops throughout New Zealand to discuss the report. Following that, the government will consider both the report and feedback before considering any policy decisions.