Freshwater progress

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
19 October, 2018

Normal politics too quickly leads to despair about democracy and humanity. If you are tired of reality-TV political shenanigans, turn off the Twitter feed and turn an eye to the government’s promising work on freshwater management.

Last week, the government released consultation documents outlining its intended approach to improving freshwater quality. The documents reflect years of careful thinking in the Ministries, and a Minister who is prepared to take the time to get things right.

The two high-level documents, “Essential Freshwater” and “Shared Interests in Freshwater,” explain the government’s goals of improved water quality, better management regimes with a stronger role for local iwi, and allocation regimes that recognise the interests of existing users and potential new users.

But the real meat is in the cabinet papers forming the appendix to each document. There, the Ministry for the Environment lays out the complex trade-offs and issues yet in need of resolution.

In a welcome change from the more typical farmer-blaming, the documents remind us that urban water quality is “generally worse” than water quality outside the cities: E. coli concentrations are more than twice as high in urban areas than in pastural areas.

The documents also explain how the main options affect potential iwi water claims. Royalty regimes for water use are likely to result in Treaty claims that the Crown has asserted an ownership interest in water. Working through Treaty of Waitangi processes could stall solutions for years.

The Ministry instead suggests regulatory routes recognising water use-rights. Finding equitable ways of allocating those use rights will not be easy: Existing users have standing that must be recognised, but Māori land in overallocated catchments should have the potential to use water. The regulatory route would allow the kind of trading in use-rights that makes it far easier to achieve environmental objectives.

The most important and difficult work still needs to be done. Where the government talks about establishing mandates around best practice in agricultural uses, it may be better instead to allow water catchment communities to define their goals and experiment with different ways of achieving them.

But the process here is promising. The government’s ban on new oil exploration permits in Taranaki reflected policy process at its worst: Politics in that case left no time for the Ministries to work out anything reasonable. The contrast provided by the government’s approach to freshwater management is sharp – and welcome.

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