Stuff - The great water debate: What impact would a charge have?

With 2017 shaping up to be the Environment Election, a cross-party group of voters reveals widespread agreement that not enough is being done to protect our waterways. Writer Ged Cann examines the issues

The water debate has been simmering away since National announced targets to have 90 per cent of New Zealand's lakes and rivers swimmable by 2040.

A great goal and soundbite, but National's Policy Statement for Freshwater Management was met with accusations of shifting the goal posts, criticised for ignoring smaller rivers, and questions were raised over a $2 billion price tag, spread over 23 years.

Labour's newly-released Clean Water for Future Generations policy seeks to charge large commercial users of water, with the royalties funnelled into river clean ups.

Labour says it's fair that companies using water should chip in to keeping our rivers clean. Critics say it will push up the cost of produce and create issues over ownership. 

It has also raised some questions, like: what does water policy have to do with expensive cabbages, wine and race politics?

How much would be charged?

At this moment there are no definite sums, and Labour water spokesman David Parker says this is because before they are in government, the party does not have enough information to make a decision.

Andrew Curtis of Irrigation NZ said Labour's proposed tax on water would not deal with the cause of water issues, with many non-irrigated areas still having water quality issues.

However, Parker said royalties would be somewhere in the realm of 1 to 2 cents per 1000 litres for irrigated water, and 1 to 2c per litre for water taken for bottling.

What could this mean for the price of my veges?

Despite early fears of $18 cabbages and outrageous jumps in the cost of wine, these estimates have proven to be overblown.

Parker said there would be a negligible effect. Take wine – figures suggest around 900 litres of irrigated water was needed for every litre of wine.

"So the price effect on a litre of wine would be somewhere around 1 or 2c," he said.

The cost of rolling out a levy also wouldn't be too pricey, Parker said, with 95 per cent of large commercial water users already metered.

IrrigationNZ produced a list of expected price rises, and found for the likes of apples, potatoes, onions, and carrots, there would be no rise.

However for a bottle of wine, loaf of bread, or block of cheese, consumers could expect a couple of extra cents tacked on.

IrrigationNZ chief executive Andrew Curtis said despite this, with many fresh produce growers operating on tight margins, the effect may be larger than estimated.

Charging implies ownership - but who owns water?

For years National's line has been that no-one owns the water, so it couldn't be sold or charged for.

Labour says everyone owns the water, so everyone should benefit from its use.

"The theoretical foundation for a levy is that where a valuable public resource is used for private profit, there should be some contribution back to the public. That's really no different from oil and gas, gold, silver, and even gravel," Parker said.

"You don't need to determine ownership for the Government to levy a royalty," he said.

Maori Council chair Sir Eddie Durie said historically a waterway belonged to the Iwi who owned the land it ran through, but while some were still claiming exclusive rights, most appreciated this was no longer a practical solution.

Labour's proposed policy was almost identical to the model which the Maori Council had previously proposed, with the main difference being the council would like to see a portion going to local Iwi, in order to employ young Maori in waterway clean ups, thereby engaging the youth with their heritage and environment.

Where would royalty money go?

The Labour policy would see the money returned to the local body from whence it came, with the primary function to aid in the cleaning up of waterways, and the remainder used to balance local body books.

Labour's David Parker said figures from Environment Minister Nick Smith suggested it would cost roughly $100m per year from central government to clean up our rivers over 25 years.

"We've said that we think it's fair that there [should be] a contribution coming from the water users," Parker said.

What about bottling water?

Parker said water which came out pure enough to be bottled without treatment was among New Zealand's most precious resources, and should carry a levy.

"We think those that are bottling it and sending it overseas should pay a royalty back to the public for that privilege."

According to the Labour policy, bottlers would be charged somewhere in the region of a few cents per litre, but the policy was for commercial takes from rivers and aquifers only, so water coming from city and municipal areas would be charged based the local body's rules.

Will it make our exports less competitive?

Parker estimates the royalties gained across the country would total $100m a year which, when compared to export in the billions, would not have a marked effect.