In 2014, a National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management was introduced. It was the first serious attempt to use the N.P.S. as an instrument to prescribe freshwater policy in New Zealand. The N.P.S.-F.M. which was amended in 2017 will be superseded by a new one this week. But how keen are politicians on improving our freshwater resource?
On the centre-right, National, whose voter base is dominated by farmers and business owners is not keen and National leader Judith Collins initially said that the reforms would be “gone by lunch time”. Although Ms Collins has since back tracked somewhat, the overall support in the party for improvement of the resource is low and generally viewed as unnecessary red tape.
On the centre-left, the Labour Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is supporting the new N.P.S.-F.M. which seeks to broadly overhaul the checks and balances on use of the resource by farmers. The broad aims are to reduce the presence of livestock in freshwater bodies including lowland streams and smaller rivers, to require farms to have management plans and data loggers recording their water takes from groundwater and surface water sources.
New Zealand has a long and deep association with its freshwater resource. We use it for electricity generation; a multitude of water sports; farming; industrial and domestic uses. It supports an array of fisheries, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Maori iwi have ancestral linkages to the freshwater, its use for transportation, as a source of kai, and as ancestors the strength of the mauri (life force) is an indicator of its health. In the central North Island, Tainui whose ancestral lands cover much of Waikato are strongly linked to the river of the same name, in the same way that Ngati Tuwharetoa are linked to the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park and Ngai Tahu to Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Causes of the decline in fresh water quality can be traced to excessive nutrients going into freshwater, mainly from dairy farms. If waterways are not appropriately fenced off cows will urinate/defecate in the water. The break down of this introduces high levels of nitrogen which is bad for aquatic life in the streams, which in turn impact on the fish. In urban areas a failure to adequately treat runoff from roofs, road surfaces and industrial sites means a range of heavy metals find their way into water bodies such as the Avon or Heathcote Rivers in Christchurch.
The 2020 N.P.S.-F.M. takes effect on 03 September 2020.
A plan to divert more water from the Waikato River is the subject of renewed political attention as Auckland continues to battle a drought. But it may not be as straight forward as National and New Zealand First want.
Some people will be concerned about the attempt to take water from the Waikato River and send it to Auckland. I am too. But not for reasons you might think. The Waikato River discharges an average of 340,000 litres every second – 1 cubic metre is 1,000 litres. This attempt at diverting water from the river and sending it to Auckland will take a bit more than 0.5% of the river’s daily discharge. The media deliberately used the number 200 million litres because it sounds big. Hydrologists measure river flow in cubic metres per second.
My concern does not stem from the water being taken, but from the fact that Auckland really needs to learn to be more economic with its usage of its water resource. I am also concerned that fast tracking this through the Resource Management Act process sends the wrong signals about water use. It is also likely to further challenge Tainui’s Treaty of Waitangi settlement with the Crown about the conditions of use of water from the Waikato River – in January Tainui accused the Crown of breaking the Treaty settlement.
A lot of people south of the Bombay Hills will find it frustrating that Auckland is applying to accelerate the Resource Management Act process, when this is not so much about creating new jobs as saving ones that might be lost from inept water usage. It is also irksome because other provinces such as Canterbury, Otago and Hawkes Bay are used to much drier climates and have learnt to manage their water use. And with climate change, those provinces are expected to dry out further.
We are one of the least efficient users of water in the western world. We take it too much for granted. The decline of our natural water ways in significant part stems from excessive diversion of water for irrigation, from our urban penchant for nice green lawns and so forth.
I am no fan of privatizing a resource that fundamentally I do not believe can be privatized. However one of the negative things we are at risk of inflicting upon ourselves is having to develop a market for water. No one owns water and I believe nor should anyone try to. The water cycle and the common characteristics of the cycle, as well as the universal need of every human being for clean drinking water, mean like the air we breathe.
But before I support Auckland’s bid to make the R.M.A. process go quicker, Auckland needs to have a hard look at its water usage. There are things it could do more immediately such as look for system leakage; people can check their shower nozzles to see if they are working properly; check whether their water mains are at an appropriate water pressure.