Water, water everywhere and not a moment to think

A notice in a South Island country pub bluntly tells guests: don’t drink the water from the tap. A sly way to boost bar sales? No. Just as in India, the water might make you sick.

Tell that to tourists. Then tell them “100 per cent pure”. It doesn’t add up.

Tell them why: we need more exports to pay for our lifestyle and dairy farms are export stars. But cattle wastes seep into our waterways and pollute them.

Water is at the intersection of economic needs, health needs and environmental needs. Right now water is below the political radar but it is set to become one of the biggest public policy issues when the coming election is disposed of.

Water turned up in 2003 on the agenda of Michael Cullen’s infrastructure group of ministers, along with electricity, roads and rail. The others are high-profile — a core National party electioneering play is “roads”. Water is not. But it is arguably the biggest.

Some factors:

* The next 50 years will be less wet than the last 50, says the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

* Water is fully allocated — overallocated in some catchments, nearly 80 per cent of it to farmers. It is wastefully used. Some water tables are running dangerously low.

* Tourism, recreationists, industry and special environmental needs all compete for water — not to mention households.

* Water, pollution and waste disposal are handled at subnational level, under the Resource Management Act (water rights are allocated first-come-first-served for up to 35 years). Councils’ capabilities and policies vary widely. It’s the same old story: either the RMA is not up the job or councils aren’t or both.

* Data on the value of different uses are rubbery. So how can local bureaucrats and politicians tell if they are making wise decisions? What is the national value of a river or lake, compared with an electricity scheme that keeps Parnell showers hot or another vineyard, dairy farm or industrial plant?

In short, water is economic, environmental and a critical ingredient of daily life. It is a national resource but with specific local characteristics: the west is wet and the east is dry.

As a policy issue it as complex as they come. That is why there is no pre-election haste to give it profile.

Only the Greens among parliamentary parties make water a priority. They bother about the environmental health of rivers and lakes.

Within the government it is parked with the Ministry for the Environment (MfE). Though MfE’s intellectual horsepower has been stoked by chief executive Barry Carbon (who has also given it more of an economic slant), MfE is not a core department.

The Treasury is only now taking a growing interest. The Ministry of Economic Development (MED) has been involved, particularly on property rights.

With few exceptions — (Pete Hodgson (climate change), Jim Sutton (agriculture), Trevor Mallard (energy) — ministers don’t engage. It’s abstruse and complex and non-urgent. My call to Cullen as boss of the infrastructure group brought only a referral to Environment Minister Marian Hobbs.

Consequently, Hobbs is at a disadvantage getting traction in the cabinet and when she does it can get rough — the decision two weeks ago to tell the cabinet’s own ad hoc Waitaki Allocation Board that its draft plan for the Waitaki catchment was illogical and unworkable precipitated a tense argument among ministers.

Hobbs is a down-table minister and no powerhouse (climate change and the RMA amendment were assigned to Hodgson and David Benson-Pope). And she is hobbled when battling for funds against the big-spending health and education ministers by the lack of a noisy public constituency such as they have.

With few exceptions, the public thinks water is and should be “free” and takes water for granted until the flow stops or turns brown. Iconic lakes and rivers are a “yes, unless” — yes, of course, we are in favour but not if we lose income or our taxes go up or the shower runs cold or the tap dries up.

The advantage is that policy can be developed largely out of public sight and controversy, except by those with a special interest. The disadvantage is that if bold policy changes are to follow, they will be amidst public ignorance, indifference and reluctance to change.

Not that MfE hasn’t tried. It held dozens of meetings in February to publicise an action plan and collected about 300 submissions on which it will report soon.

MfE’s plan sets out six major water issues and 13 “actions” (each with alternative options) to address them. It is an intelligent and comprehensive piece of work, with other departments contributing.

Intriguingly, the plan does not include proposals for tradable water rights or pollution permits. Under the clunky RMA trades are in effect tied to the land the water comes with or wastes flow or seep from, though some regional councils are attempting limited experiments with economic instruments.

Tradable rights would establish prices. Waters of “national importance” and other water with non-market value could be assigned a value by regulation at national or subnational level (ACT says pay for it, just like all the rest should be paid for).

Hobbs says tradable rights are on the table. They came up at the public meetings.

But that would almost certainly require another change to the RMA — difficult before Benson-Pope’s current bill is law and it has struck heavy water in Jeanette Fitzsimons’ local government and environment select committee in Parliament.

Benson-Pope’s bill embeds local decision-making on resources. Central government is just a submitter on national interest grounds. But there is real doubt water can be handled that way. National’s Nick Smith says a National-led government post-election would change the RMA accordingly — though that would not be in the RMA bill he wants passed within nine months of taking office.

Meantime, the present government relies on ad hoc arrangements (which came badly unstuck in the Waitaki), possible national policy statements to get more consistency in local and regional decisions and environmental and health standards. An environmental standard is coming on the source of drinking water and a health standard on tap water has been proposed.

That adds up to more bureaucracy and no assurance of more market. Fine when water was plentiful but not when it is being competed for. And not fine when 86 councils are in on the act.

ACT says corporatise and privatise, wholesale. National shies from that — for good reason: the public, still grumpy about the 1980s-90s privatisations, doesn’t want its water in private hands.

Which leaves operators in limbo. Simon Carlaw hopes to change that. Late of Business New Zealand, Carlaw has taken on an assignment to professionalise and lift the profile of the Water and Wastes Association.

So you are likely hear more about water — after the election. But don’t expect rapid change then. Development of a rational approach to water will be at least a five-year programme, Hobbs says.

And even then those 35-year fixed rights have still to run their course. There may be less water to go round — but there is a lot to run under the policy bridges.