Otago Daily Times - Back off the tax, a water-quality pathway exists

How is a nationally directed charge on water abstraction going to improve water quality, Graeme Martin asks.

Water quality in our streams, rivers, lakes, groundwater and coastal waters is a whole of community issue — rural and urban. There are varying concerns, causes, management and remedial needs for problems with water quality just as there are for protection of water quality. Public interest in the quality of natural water resources is to be commended, but that interest alone must not direct regulatory policy. Effective regulatory policy must be developed in a principled framework that considers need, objectives, options, solutions, consequences, implementation, fairness and efficacy. Our Resource Management Act demands no less. Sound public policy is not a close friend of popular expression of alarm or electoral calls for urgency.

Management of the quality of New Zealand’s natural waters deserves our attention. But we must adopt the start point that current water quality is a product of present and past regulatory policy, its vision, and its implementation. And that start point is given oversight and is governed in various ways by the Ministry for Environment, Ministry of Primary Industries, Department of Conservation and regional councils. At the sharp operating end, regional councils stand alone and thus are the most directly influential and responsible regulator. 

And to improve regional policies on water quality, policy implementation, regulatory enforcement, and incentives for change councils have long had access to a suite of statutory funding tools and principles that can be reasonably tailored for fairness and effectiveness.

So how is a nationally directed charge on water abstraction going to improve water quality?

Where and to what the raised funds would be applied is largely unstated, or at best loosely stated as being for cleanup of water pollution. Logically, urban and rural polluters should pay for reducing and remedying their polluting. They will not change practices just because unrelated water abstractors are charged an annual levy.

Rural irrigators are well through upgrading technology to command highly efficient irrigation systems that minimisewater use and leachate. An un-differentiated water use charge may be a perverse inducement slowing that upgrade.

Discharge and leaching of pollutants to water has been controlled and regulated by regional councils for 35 years. So analysis of pollution of water resources must start with co-analysis of the effectiveness and enforcement of those regional policies and rules and analysis of the locations, pollutants and pollutant sources in resources with impaired quality. That co-analysis would inform any needed policy changes and remedial measures. In doing so it would define who should pay for cessation and remediation of water pollution.

That in turn would generate fair and informed policy with funding that would incentivise change and would not be punitive across non-polluting abstractors. Politicians, government agencies, regional councils, water users, and lobbyists take note: a principled pathway for improving and/or maintaining water resource quality already exists. It only needs focus to apply. It does not glibly start with a universal un-differentiated annual levy on water abstractors, but inevitably will require patience for transitional change to achieve needed outcomes.

- Retired Central Otago residentGraeme Martin has an extensive background in water issues. He has previously served in the water and soil division of the Ministry of Works, as Otago Catchment Board general manager, Nelson Marlborough Regional Council CEO and Otago Regional Council CEO.