The Land and Water Forum's final report on new ways to allocate freshwater is a "once-in-a-generation opportunity", chairman Alastair Bisley says as the document is released to a careful welcome by government ministers and applause from a wide range of water users.
While there were some notable non-signatories to the outcomes of the four-year experiment in consensus decision-making, the forum managed to get 95% of its 60-plus members from industry, local government, iwi, environmental groups, recreational users and farmers across the line on 67 recommendations.
Among signatories is the national farming lobby, Federated Farmers, although their objection to any system requiring water rents saw the forum make no recommendation in that area.
The system it promotes would see the government establish national guidelines and standards for freshwater catchment management, which would be used by regional councils as the foundation for collaborative processes at a local level to establish "scarcity thresholds" for freshwater resources.
When such thresholds are reached, that would trigger a requirement for all existing water users to be governed by resource consents to give certainty about water rights, to allow existing water resources to be shared fairly across users, easing the transfer of water rights between alternative users and ensuring new users can "enter the water economy".
"Once a scarcity threshold has been met, all takes in a catchment should be formally accounted for and existing users, including those operating under permitted activity rules or statutory authorisations ... should be 'grand-parented' into the management framework through a process that ensures they get only what they need," the report says.
Major water users are from this month required to start accurately recording their consumption.
The new system would also see regional councils identify contaminant loads in every freshwater catchment, pinpoint their origin and manage them to achieve whatever standards of freshwater purity have been agreed.
The forum report says this need not involve "trading off or balancing values against each other".
"There are many ways to pursue environmental, economic and social benefits at once, including through accessing new water through efficiency gains and new infrastructure, adding value to our products and services, science and innovation, and leveraging off environmental performance in export markets.
"The change we propose sets up the system towards outcomes which are advantageous to all parties."
Among those not to sign up to the LAWF report were Auckland urban water company Watercare Services, for reasons that are unclear, and the electricity company TrustPower, which has extensive plans to produce hydro-electricity and irrigation schemes on the Canterbury Plains.
Irrigators expressed displeasure about what they say were last-minute changes limiting resource consents for water to no more than 20 years in the first instance, possibly stretching out to 35 years.
"Certainty is the key if irrigators are to invest in sustainability. Irrigators need long-duration consents and an explicit right of renewal," Andrew Curtis of Irrigation NZ says. "Short durations and uncertainty of renewal will produce reactive and high- risk thinking."
Irrigation schemes needed 50 year consents to justify the initial capital outlay.
"This would improve the viability of initial and on-going capital investment. In return for this, IrrigationNZ agrees consents need to adapt in a timely manner to environmental limit changes."
The report also includes a joint statement on iwi freshwater rights and interests, agreeing these should be settled between the Crown and iwi under Treaty of Waitangi settlement negotiations, without compromising existing water rights.
"Costs relating to Crown-iwi resolutions should not be transferred on to other parties," the statement says.
Primary Industries and Environment Ministers David Carter and Amy Adams welcomed the report as providing "a solid foundation from which to progress the government's strategic direction for water management".
"This work will feed into further progress in the fresh water reform programme, from which we've already seen the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, the Fresh Start for Freshwater Clean-Up Fund and the Irrigation Acceleration Fund."
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