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Water needs a price, reforms require urgency, submitters say

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, said in her submission that pricing water is overdue.

Pattrick Smellie
Fri, 22 Apr 2016

The government's freshwater management reforms need to be re-energised, lack ambitious timetables and avoid hard questions like pricing water, say submissions from a range of tourism and environmental groups on the proposed "next steps" for the reform programme.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, said in her submission that pricing water is overdue and that current debate on the subject confuses pricing with water ownership and payment for water infrastructure.

With many freshwater catchments around the country already over-allocated, Dr Wright said: "Pricing is the standard way of dealing with such problems."

The Environmental Defence Society said a water price should be established as soon as possible and be ramped up over a decade to give time for water users to adjust to the new system, with the proceeds used to improve water quality.

"The time is right for the government to to put a price on water," said EDS, which suggests it should be styled as a "royalty, akin to that imposed on Crown minerals."

"We accept the government's contention that no one owns freshwater but that should not prevent the imposition of a charge. The charge does not relate to ownership but to the right to use a public resource for personal gain."

The issue has become heated in recent weeks following the latest plan by a water bottling business, NZ Pure Blue, to extract some 40 billion litres of water over 30 years.

Environment Minister Nick Smith hit back at critics of the plan yesterday, pointing out that 500 trillion litres of fresh water flows through New Zealand lakes and rivers annually, of which 10 trillion are extracted for human use, with bottled water making up 0.004% of the total.

However, water pricing was already politically charged because of negotiations with Maori leaders relating to "rights and interests" in freshwater that has been established by the courts under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Prime Minister John Key confirmed last week the government was unlikely to move on water allocation and pricing policies before the 2017 election.

The Tourism Industry Association called for earlier deadlines for the removal of stock from waterways and a more explicit recognition of the value of freshwater to the New Zealand tourism industry, which is growing so fast that international tourists are expected to grow from three million last year to four million by 2019.

"We view the document's lack of a clear national vision, plan and corresponding implementation guidance, as constituting a delay," the TIA said. "Industry growth puts pressure on tourism infrastructure, of which freshwater resources and the supported environments are a pivotal component. This should be a priority for government spend."

Both the PCE and EDS argue the aim that "overall quality of freshwater with a freshwater management unit is maintained or improved" needs tightening to stop improvements in one place being offset against degradation in another.

On the widely shared public desire that all freshwater bodies be made "swimmable" the commissioner said a way to be "both aspirational and practical" needs to be found.

While being able to swim in a river has "long been part of the New Zealand way of life," Dr Wright said: "There are some places where no one would ever want to swim."

"Moreover, we have built towns and cities and developed agriculture and gained the benefits of this but what we have done on the land has affected the water."

She proposed making it compulsory for local government to publish swimability objectives, without requiring them to make every freshwater body swimmable.


Pattrick Smellie
Fri, 22 Apr 2016
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Water needs a price, reforms require urgency, submitters say