cow river nz

NZ Govt new freshwater policy – Slightly less shitty

Geoff SimmonsEnvironment

In yesterday’s blog we looked at all that was good in the Government’s latest fresh water proposals. Today we look at the shortcomings, which can generally be summarised as ‘too little, too late’. Most of these problems were glaringly obvious when their last policy was released in 2014, and it shouldn’t have taken so long to sort them out. It is a bit like the Government has put its environmental credibility through the shredder, and is now desperately trying to stick it back together with sticky tape. We’ll look at each of the issues in turn.

Livestock exclusion

As we saw yesterday it is good that we finally have some national rules, but the timetable is woefully slow. We know stock in rivers and lakes pose a huge problem for swimmability, so why are we waiting until 2030 to sort it out? A good example is the Government’s treatment of dairy cattle – at the moment dairy cattle are exempt until 2025 if they are on land owned by someone else. This is a massive loophole, and is an example of an industry that is dodging their obvious responsibilities. Cattle behave the same no matter where they are – it’s the humans whose behaviour we need to change as quickly as possible.

Then in the consultation document the Government has the gall to say that excluding cattle from a waterway improves water quality, like they are doing us all a favour. The animals in question shouldn’t be in the stream in the first place! This sort of language suggests that either Ministerial offices are writing the document or that officials are captured by industry.

There are other issues on this point, such as stock only being excluded from rivers that are permanent, wider than a metre and deeper than 30cm. Many scientists point out that our mighiest rivers start from the smallest trickles, so if there is stock in small streams then there will still be crap in our rivers.

Swimmable rivers

As the Opposition has pointed out, the Government haven’t budged on the key problem with their 2014 policy – their declaration that the bottom line for water quality should be wadeability rather than swimmability.

This is where the Opposition has a point – wadeability is just not good enough. The long term goal for all rivers should be to make them swimmable. Rather than assuming that communities don’t desire this and making them fight for improvements as the Government has done, the default goal should be for swimmable rivers unless the local community decides it doesn’t want that and specifically opts out.

However, the latest announcement has improved things a little. As we discussed yesterday the Government has now clarified its fundamental goal of “maintaining or improving” water quality. The 2014 statement was so vague as to be meaningless because it referred to maintaining or improving water quality across regions as a whole. They have now been more explicit and effectively the maintain or improve goal applies to individual catchments. This does make a big difference as essentially the ‘bottom line’ for each catchment is now based on current water quality – they aren’t allowed to get any worse than they are now. Since many catchments are predicted to go backwards for many years due to past changes in land use, many Councils will have their work cut out for them in maintaining water quality at current levels in each and every catchment.

So the announcement does improve matters a little, although that statement comes with a few provisos. Firstly, it was abundantly clear from submissions in 2014 that the government needed to be more explicit by what ‘maintain or improve’ meant – so why wait to concede the obvious. Secondly, there is a potentially important qualification to the directive to ‘maintain or improve’ waterways. Maintain means maintaining water quality within the current band. That means water quality could deteriorate so long as it stays within its current band – and being so wide those bands provide quite a bit of wriggle room.  

Ownership and trading the rights to pollute and use fresh water

Regional Councils are struggling to clamp down on water users, particularly farmers in areas where the waterways are have been stuffed – either by pollution or overuse of water. This is the very issue that this report was supposed to shed some light on. Like the Land and Water Forum did last year, the Ministry for the Environment have effectively kicked this issue for touch, saying that ‘more work will be done’. This stuff isn’t rocket science, we all know where it must ultimately end up.

In the first instance, Government is using the Canterbury approach of pushing ‘good management practice’ – basically encouraging farmers to farm in a less wasteful way. This is all useful stuff, but is fiddling with minor detail compared to the challenge faced in many areas. In catchments that have too much nitrogen for example like Rotorua and much of Canterbury, farmers will have little choice but to house their livestock or use feed pads (the expensive option) or simply cut numbers. Some experiments show farmers can do this without reducing profit, as they cut costs at the same time. These are the issues that need to be confronted.

The real issue is how you deal with waterways that have been seriously damaged – how you get farmers, Councils and companies to wind back the damage in the most efficient way possible.

The Government is sticking to their line that nobody owns the water, but they know to make any system work they will have to allow water users and polluters to transfer their rights to water or nutrient discharge to more efficient farmers/users. The owners of these consents won’t be so benevolent that they will simply hand over their entitlements for nothing – they will be demanding some payment. This causes Government a thorny political problem – how can they receive money from a resource they don’t “own”?

Let’s cut the crap here – water is a very valuable asset and under the current approach Councils are transferring a lot of wealth to a few. The proof is that water rights immediately become capitalised into land values. If the Government are so keen on efficiency of water use they need to develop a charging regime. That will ensure that water gets used efficiently and that the users and polluters of our fresh water make some contribution to the public purse in return for the damage they do and profit they reap.

Fresh water funding

As we saw yesterday, water users are being asked to pick up the tab for all the costs faced by Regional Councils in managing fresh water. The first cab off the rank should be Waikato charging Auckland for the water it takes.

However, this concept needs to be broadened to cleaning up fresh water problems. As signalled at the last election the Government is setting up a $100m fund for clean ups. Firstly this number is dwarfed by its $400m investment in irrigation, which indicates they are more interested in keeping everyone happy than actually making a difference. Secondly, the taxpayer shouldn’t have to foot this bill. Water users and polluters should be paying to clean up our fresh water.


The government pat themselves on the back for their collaborative approach to water management. However, this collaboration is breaking down as can be seen by the exit of Fish and Game from the process. As we discussed when the Land and Water Forum released their last report, progress from collaborating on the important issues has been slow at best. The jury is out on whether the collaborative approach is working as intended or is slowly being dominated by interest groups. Perhaps more importantly there are questions whether the Government is really only paying lip service to the outcomes from the collaboration process.


NZ Govt new freshwater policy – Slightly less shitty was last modified: February 22nd, 2016 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

Facebook Twitter

Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.