It is time for the public’s views to prevail over fresh water

Gareth MorganEnvironment

Given New Zealand is a democracy, what the public thinks about the state of New Zealand’s rivers and streams should matter a great deal. In fact, it should be the only thing that counts.

However from the policies that are in place right now, and if leaked documents circulated last week from the new policies that are coming are anything to go by (see here), the public is evidently unconcerned about fresh water quality and has no interest in reining in polluters. Believe that at your own risk.

Scientists at Lincoln University regularly survey the public for their views on New Zealand’s rivers and streams. The most recent published results are from 2010 and the findings are clear:

“These messages lead us to the following views, based on our survey research:

  • People ‘don’t want’ development to wreck fresh water environments they recreate in, they value the ecology and nature of these resources highly;signals, are supported by a majority of respondents; 
  • People are worried about freshwater, its management and pollution; and
  • Given that individual and government priorities place a high emphasis on the environment (and noting that individuals are willing to pay for improvements and/or mitigation where key rural resources are damaged), it is clear that rural land development/intensification that increasingly impacts fresh water resources needs to occur with sustainability as a requirement, and not as a retrospective (partial) fix.
  • Government leadership is needed to address rural water management issues. New policies, tools and more resources are needed to tackle these issues.”


When the authors of the report refer to “sending clear economic signals” they mean policies such as charging water users and hence incentivising them to reduce usage (for example, irrigators) or how much they pollute. Water charges and similar policies inspire sustained innovations and improved farm practices. Quite obviously, policies like this are designed to create an effective cap on the level of ongoing damage that can be done to rivers and streams. From the Lincoln survey it is clear the public want that cap to be close to present levels of use and polluting.

What appears to be looming on the horizon however is a sophisticated and dazzling blend of smoke and mirrors. Yes, it seems likely that the tools needed to produce a cap will be put in place (which in principle is good news) but the permissible limits for water use and polluting that accompany these tools appear likely to be so generous that the new tools might as well not exist. This from one scientist prepared to talk about the leaked report:

“How helpful is that ….it’s almost as if you’re setting a bottom line that you waltz home through.”

There are three places where a stand can be taken to protect New Zealand’s fresh water. Firstly, Parliament is where the overall scene is set and a good place to demand that policy be reconnected with the public’s views. With the Labour Party unhelpfully absorbed in internal politics and the National Party seemingly in bed with farmers and big business, it is being left up to Greens to do this job – which they are trying to do – but in reality there are limits to what a small party which is not part of a governing coalition can achieve.

Secondly, much can be done at the level of local government. Local governments are responsible for implementing resource management laws and have powers (and the legal obligation) to set their own environmental targets. However there is no escaping the conflict between polluters and the public at the local level and if the overall message coming out of Parliament is soft on polluting, it can make it hard for local bodies to find the courage to set tough standards.

Finally, there is community action – the public getting involved in fixing the mess they see around them by planting river banks, working with farmers and other businesses to work out solutions on water use, and monitoring water quality. And let’s not forget, some farmers are doing a good job of looking after the rivers and streams that run through their properties. It is unfortunate that this positive collaboration between farmers and the public is often obscured by the posturing of the farming sector lobbyists.

There are some inspiring examples both from local government and community groups about what is being done and what can be achieved. The 2012 win for Horizons Council in its battle with Federated Farmers in the Environment Court is one example, as are the efforts of groups like Enviroschools and the Landcare Trust that work across the country helping communities achieve their environmental goals.

Eventually Parliament may reconnect with the public will on fresh water – and the 2014 election may be the catalyst for that – but in the meantime it is pretty clear that those who can make a difference should get on regardless. What is needed then is a joining of the dots across local government and community groups to make the efforts of both more effective. Community groups and local councils could collaborate on a much greater scale than they do at present both within each community and across communities. The onus for taking this step towards greater collaboration and connection sits with councils who have both the resources to engage with other councils and communities and a legislated responsibility to protect the environment.

The Morgan Foundation is taking steps to help take local government and community action to the next level by hosting an inaugural New Zealand River Awards in Wellington on 28th November. The Awards will celebrate the good work that is going on to give effect to the public’s wish for better fresh water management. Andrew Gawith and Susan Guthrie from the Foundation are working on this project. A panel of experts has been engaged to identify which New Zealand rivers have improved in the past decade, and their findings will form the basis for the Awards. It’s time to celebrate what has been done and what can be done with a concerted will and a willingness to work together.

It is time for the public’s views to prevail over fresh water was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.