Water: the next big infrastructure issue

Electricity was the first need in Iraq after the bombing. Why? To get water to people. Water was the bigger and more basic need. As we are about to find out.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) warned earlier this month [April] that the next 50 years will be drier than the past — just as competition for available water is heating up. NIWA predicts conflict over water in the future.

That is why Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen has water on the agenda of his infrastructure group of ministers. The other items — electricity, roads and rail — are more immediately pressing. But long-term water is at least as knotty and possibly a knottier question than those others. Government action can increase the supply of electricity and roads. Rainfall is beyond its influence.

There are six main competing demands for water: people’s personal needs, industry, agriculture, electricity generation, recreation and preservation of special environmental features.

Up till now there has been more or less enough to go round. That is about to change. Cullen’s job is to sort out how to share out this newly scarce resource in the future. Essentially, as he said in an interview on his infrastructure group last month, allocation has been on a first-in-first-served basis.

That implies almost inescapably a significant, perhaps major, change to the Resource Management Act (RMA) or the way it is implemented to bring national interest considerations into play.

But that is well down the track. So far there has been only one cabinet paper so at most the group has only questions, not answers — too little for Cullen to add last week to his March comments.

In fact, even the questions are not yet well enough honed to provide a basis for policy development, according to the minister overseeing climate change policy, Pete Hodgson.

So, it is understood, there will be money in the Budget for four departments to develop the questions and begin work on policy responses: the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), the Ministry of Economic Development (MED), the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) and the Department of Conservation (DoC). Local government, which allocates water, is also involved.

This policy work is part of the “programme of action” for sustainable development issued in January.

The predicament was spelt out by NIWA on April 15: “We are predicting that there will be less rainfall in the next 50 years,” Charles Pearson of the Crown research institute’s National Centre for Water Resources said, but also “we are facing a rapid increase in demand for water for irrigation — irrigated land use is doubling every 10 years. Without careful management of our water resource, we will end up with less water in our rivers and groundwater systems.”

Since the “easy water” has gone, Pearson said future demand will have to be met through storage and taking more from groundwater. “We will have to start using water more smartly and allocate it to those who will use it best and make sure everybody uses it efficiently.”

This will especially be the case on the eastern side of both islands, Pearson said, where there will be less water in east coast foothills streams, lower groundwater tables and less water in spring-fed streams, disappearance of lowland ephemeral streams and proliferation of small farm dams, with significant takes from the major east coast rivers.

So, first, the government must establish how much water there is, where it is, what the groundwater resources is, how climate affects the sources of water and how changes in flow affect quality. “We also have to think about the animals and plants in the streams which, among other things, help purify the water and provide recreational enjoyment for fishers and other users,” Pearson said.

In short, there has to be a strategy. That is the Cullen group’s task.

High on the list of hurdles is the RMA. Since it is administered by local authorities, it is not driven by national needs.

For example, if Meridian Energy’s Project Aqua electricity generation scheme in the lower Waitaki river is critical to assuring future electricity supplies, why should local councillors decide its fate?

One option is for the government to issue national policy statements under the RMA, either guiding or mandating local and regional councils. A paper prepared for MfE in 2001 recommended national direction on macroeconomic decisions — tradeoffs, priorities, bottom lines for “instream values” and benefits — and economic efficiency — approaches other than first-in-first-served, RMA consents for less than requested and reserving allocations for the future.

But this begs the question of what should be in the national directions.

What if electricity generation cuts across farmers’ development? Isn’t economic expansion top of the government’s priority list? On what basis do you decide between electricity and irrigation?

Or, to take a matter dear to Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton’s heart, how do you decide a fair distribution between farmers and sports fishers? At the moment, he reckons too many rivers are locked up for recreational purposes under water conservation orders.

Think laterally and factor in Maori freshwater fisheries — notably eels. The Waitangi Fisheries Commission says there may be valid Treaty of Waitangi claims to require the government to rebuild freshwater fisheries through restoration of habitats and other remedial measures.

Then ask why existing water rights should be sacrosanct. Cullen’s concern about those rights having come about by first-in-first-served allocations under planning laws poses a complex issue of how to disentangle that now.

But national interest suggests he should. First-in-first-served “doesn’t recognise strategic future needs and runs the risk of foreclosing important future options”, MAF senior policy analyst Grant McFadden wrote in a paper. McFadden also found that only 50-60 per cent of the water allocated for agriculture is actually used, which is inefficient.

And what is the role of economic instruments — for example, a market in transferable water permits (TWPs) — as allocators. Sounds straightforward but actually has involved MAF in a raft of work from which it has concluded: “The operation and effects of a TWP system are complex”. MAF’s particular interest in water arises from the fact that around 77 per cent of all water allocated by councils is used by agriculture for irrigation.

The market looks a promising mechanism for economic uses, irrigation and industry. But how do you price household allocations — or the non-economic benefits of recreational uses such as fly fishing and white river rafting and preservation of ecosystems that are affected by changes in river flows? And should “social benefits”, such as employment, be factored in?

One MAF paper notes four “prime mechanisms” for water allocation: marginal cost pricing, allocation by a public institution, water markets and user-based allocation by collective institutions. Applied to irrigation projects, pricing could be by volume, by addition to agricultural output, by input, by area and two-tiered.

MfE takes another tack. It has stated in a paper that there are three key questions to be answered:

* “How much water is needed in rivers, streams and aquifers to protect the values we want from our water resources?”

* “How do we use the water we take out or divert so that we minimise the effects on ecosystems, receiving waters and community values?”

* “How can we gain the most economic and social benefit from water we take out or divert?”