By Brendan Moyle 28/08/2017

Freshwater policy has become one of the NZ election issues of this year.  With that in mind, the Science Media Centre asked the parties the following question:

What policy decisions does your party propose to tackle the issue of freshwater quality degradation in our country’s waterways?

I’m going to analyse the responses to this question.  Initially though, there are some aspects about freshwater management in New Zealand that need to be understood.  The first is that the statutory responsibility for managing freshwater in NZ lies with regional authorities.  Central government doesn’t give say, sawmills discharge rights into rivers or farmers’ irrigation rights to water.  That’s what councils/regional authorities do.  The second is we do have a framework for national water standards.  This process was started by the previous Labour government and developed and made operational by the current National (in 2014).  These require certain standards to be reached nationally, and (with some exceptions), be met by 2025.

The third is NZ’s freshwater management differs from many other countries by having a lot of non-point sources.  A point source is like a factory pipe-outlet. It’s easy to monitor, find out exactly what is being discharged and when.  Non-point pollutants come from diffuse sources.  They’re common in agriculture. Pollutants move through soils gradually over time and enter water. That makes it challenging to identify when and where the source of the pollution was.  Some of our pollutants have been stored for decades in soils that are only now making their way into waterways. These pollutants also tend to be associated with agriculture (nitrates, phosphates, sediments).  Generally we also worry a lot less about heavy metal pollutants in NZ.

The Parties

NATIONAL: The Government has set a target of 90 per cent of New Zealand’s lakes and rivers to meet swimmable water quality standards by 2040. This compares to a current standard of 72 per cent.

The goal to improve water quality is estimated to cost the Government, farmers and councils $2 billion over the next 23 years. This is on top of the $140 million already committed by the Government to be spent on specific river and lake clean-ups.

We are moving to a system which requires councils to improve the swimmability of their rivers and lakes over the year. This is a significant change. Under the new proposal, over 50,000 kilometres of waterways will be improved for swimming. We will see more and more places suitable for swimming more often.

The swimmable goal described above address the E. coli issue (but not others).  E. coli is a common bacterium found in the guts of humans, livestock and birds.  High E. coli counts make water unswimmable by causing illness in some swimmers. What is not made clear is that these swimmable standards don’t apply to freshwater that is too small or shallow to swim in, in the first place. These will still have to meet the recreational standard however.  The current and planned expenditures on clean-ups at least, addresses some of the other non-specified pollutants.

The plan is backed up by national regulations requiring stock to be fenced out of waterways, new national policy requirements on regional councils to strengthen their planning rules on issues such as sewage discharges and planting riparian margins, a new Freshwater Improvement Fund and new maps that clearly identify where improvements are needed.

Again, most of this is about controlling E. coli levels.  The new proposed rules on sewage discharge recognises that urban areas are a major source of E. coli pollution, and have been somewhat neglected with the focus on rural sources.  There are no new initiatives to control other pollutants, such as nitrates.  This is still up to councils and regional authorities to manage.

We will require monitoring and public reporting to show progress.

Overall, the freshwater policy here is to maintain the framework established in 2014 and try to reach the goals set out in this by 2025.

LABOUR: Labour will restore our rivers and lakes to a truly swimmable state within a generation. We’ll help farmers and other owners of waterways with fencing and riparian planting through our Ready for Work programme and we’ll give the regional councils the resources to clean up their waterways through a water royalty. Labour has a suite of other policies to stop water quality getting worse straight away and reverse the damage being done. 

Since a tax on water-use was first mooted by Labour, there has been high interest in their freshwater management policy. Details have been sparse. It appears at least, Labour intends continuing with the NPS-FM framework for water improvement. The response above however, is woefully short of detail and costings. Many associated issues in this brief response are poorly explained.

For instance, what does truly swimmable mean?  Does this mean using other metrics than the E. coli count?  David Parker was suggesting Periphyton earlier this year. Is this going to be included?

A generation is roughly 25 years. Is that stricter than the current goal of 90% by 2040? If say shallow urban streams and ponds have high E. coli counts because of the bird life inhabiting them, is it really Labour’s goal to get the E. coli count down to a swimmable level of a median of 130? What exactly is the point of getting water bodies that can’t be swum in, down to a swimmable standard?

What is this water royalty? We don’t know what level it is going to be set at (reported numbers are between 1c and 2c per 1000l). We don’t know how it is going to be collected. And it has little relationship to freshwater degradation. Dairy farming is associated with rises in nitrate levels in fresh water. Other forms of farming, such as viticulture aren’t linked to such rises.  Viticulture also uses a lot of water. A royalty based on water use, isn’t a polluter-pays tax.  If your concern is nitrate pollution, you would tax nitrate fertilisers. Or you’d tax cows.  From a policy perspective, taxing water use makes little sense. It isn’t targeting polluters or (directly) the problem of water degradation.

In short, based on the above response, we don’t know what Labour is going to do, how much they’re budgeting to spend, and how much they’re planning to collect by way of water royalties.

GREEN: The Green Party will require as a minimum that all water bodies be safe for swimming in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.

I like that the Green Party appears familiar with the NPS-FM. I’m not sure all the parties are familiar with it.  Still, this begs some questions. Are they referring just to the E. coli standards (I’m assuming so), or in fact, other issues that could prevent swimming? What is the time-frame they are looking at?  Do they want all water safe for swimming by 2025, or 2040,  earlier, or later as per Labour above?

Our full policy package on water is yet to be announced but we have already said that we will:

Put an immediate 10 cent/litre levy on water bottling and exports – local councils will be expected to use the revenue to clean up waterways, and protect drinking water sources and infrastructure. Half the revenue will go to mana whenua.

Well, at least we know where the money is supposed to come from. Albeit with a tiny fraction of consented water used for bottling, revenues from the tax look trivial. It is also, not really a polluter-pays tax.  In fact, local councils that did allow water quality to degrade, might win in this scheme.  They’ll get allocated more of the water levy money. Unless the levies are tied to the regions they originate from. In which case funds could end up very weird. A region with lots of high quality water, that’s also used for irrigation, could get a lot of revenue and have little to spend it on. Some clarification is needed.

Toughen national standards to limit the amount of pollution going into water

What pollutants do they mean and why do they need toughening up?  What exactly is the problem with the standards and grades established in 2014 in the NPS-FM?  “Toughen” sounds a bit like a slogan more than an actual policy.

Put a hold on all new conversions of land to dairy farms

The reasoning behind this seems opaque.  NZ’s regions are all different.  Water quality isn’t being uniformly degraded. In some areas, dairy conversions may well be sustainable. What makes dairy conversions worse than say, beef conversions? Why shouldn’t managing conversions be left to the regional authority under the Resource Management Act?

Require resource consents for more intensive land uses
Introduce rules that require all farms to be fenced from rivers and creeks, and for riverbanks to be planted so that excess run-off is absorbed

Noting that riparian strips and stock exclusion are already (or will be) part of freshwater management in NZ.

Ensure Māori are recognised and supported in their role as kaitiaki of their taonga and tikanga.

Relevance to SMC question is not clear, or what it means beyond the Resource Management Act.  How does this differ from the current Te Mana o Te Wai programme?

Look at how urban design can reduce stormwater pollution from entering rivers
Upgrade and invest in sewerage systems that dispose sewage onto land rather than water, where appropriate

Good to see recognition that urban sources are a major issue too. In principle, urban sewage systems are the responsibility of councils and regional authorities however. So I’m unclear what is intended here, as it seems inappropriate for central government to be fixing local sewage systems.

Introduce a charge on water used for irrigation. Those who profit from water use should pay for the privilege

Pricing of irrigation of water is probably going to happen. The Land and Water Forum is backing it. But it is chiefly used to solve over-drawing of water in water-scarce areas, rather than reduce pollution in rivers.

Keep wild rivers wild by not building new water storage schemes

Relevance to SMC question is not clear.

Wind up Crown Irrigation Investments, a subsidy used to fund water storage and irrigation scheme.

Relevance to SMC question not clear.

NZ FIRST: Responses not yet received.

Well, not really anything to go on here.

MĀORI: Water is a taonga and we must do everything we can to protect its quality and vitality and ensure its availability for all New Zealanders. The Māori Party established the Te Mana o Te Wai fund for the health and well-being of our water and has supported the key objective of te mana o te wai as a driving policy for freshwater management.

The Te Mana o te Wai fund has already been used to support several projects of ecological and cultural importance.

The three elements of Te Mana o Te Wai are:

Te hauora o te wai – the health and mauri (quality and vitality) of water
Te hauora o te taiao – the health and mauri of the environment and
Te hauora o te tangata – the health and mauri of the people

We want to:

Legislate to protect freshwater and give it the status of taonga

Enhance Te Mana o Te Wai funding to support community projects such as planting riparian buffers and establish wetlands

Establish Regional Water Authorities based on a co-governance model between water rights holders and the Regional Councils to manage, clean up, and restore our waterways

Ensure Te Mana o Te Wai is the overarching objective for freshwater management

These largely integrate with the NPS-FM 2014, but with increased participation by local iwi and hapu.

Impose a moratorium on the sale of water (this includes all water used/sold for commercial use including water exports by foreign companies) so that issues around water, namely quality, management and ownership, can be addressed

This is more about property rights around water than being relevant for the SMC question.

Make the freshwater standard ‘drinkable’

Not possible. The drinkable standard for freshwater is 0-2 E. coli per 100 ml.  We’d pretty much have to kill every water bird in NZ and chlorinate all the lakes and rivers to achieve that.  To recap, the minimum recreational standard is 1000 E. coli per 100 ml.  The minimum swimming standard is a median count of 130.  Drinking standard are even stricter. Presumably drinkable standards described here are going to be more lax than the official drinking standards.

Set up annual Te Mana o te Wai funding to support community projects such as planting riparian buffers and establishing wetlands

I like the idea of establishing more wetlands.

Prioritise action to counter the effects of pollution caused by nitrogen and phosphorus that are leaching into our waterways

Like what actions?  In what way is the NPS-FM is not able to perform this task?

Support funding for the capturing of rainfall and better clean water storage systems particularly in rural areas

Possibly useful, but perhaps not relevant for the SMC question.

ACT: The Government should adopt the Land and Water Forum’s recommendation of replacing first-in first-served water use with a system of tradeable use rights – emulating our world-leading fisheries’ quota system. This would retain farmers’ access to water while also incentivising conservation of water by giving farmers the option of on-selling their quota excess.

Not really relevant for the SMC question.

The Opportunities Party (TOP): Our environment is the cornerstone of our key exports (agriculture and tourism) as well as our unparalleled quality of life. Currently, we are pursuing economic growth at all cost, predominantly through intensification of land use. However, we are blind to the impacts it is having on our environment, and especially, our water resources.

Economic growth say, at all cost, except for the Resource Management Act 1991 that mandates inclusion of social, cultural and environmental values into resource use.  Or the setting aside large areas of our terrestrial and marine landscapes as reserves. And the development of the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (2014) because we are aware of the impacts on our water resources.

Industries such as dairy currently get a free ride on environmental externalities (while also receiving subsidies for irrigation), and the taxpayer is forced to pick up the bill for cleanup. This is only going to get worse as we insist on pursuing increased volume of exports over value, driving even more pollutants into our rivers.

Rather than getting a free-ride, dairy farming is increasingly constrained by costly measures to prevent water pollution.  These include sealed effluent ponds, riparian strips and stock-exclusions.

To combat this TOP will ensure that all externalities are accounted for. Those who are above a sustainable level ofpollution will pay, those below will receive payment from the penalty pool, driving all polluters towards best practice.

What makes this problematic is that we’re looking at non-point pollution over long time periods and very heterogeneous landscapes.  It’s not possible to charge farmers for nitrates stored in soils several decades ago that are now entering lakes.  We don’t know which farmers are responsible and how much each of them contributed.  Farms that are distant from waterways contribute less water pollution than farms that are close to them.  There is also a major challenge here in converting all the existing water consents granted by regional authorities into this payment mechanism.

The bottom line is to improve the quality of our waterways.

Interestingly, the NPS-FM 2014 established many bottom lines for freshwater quality in NZ and committed us to a path of improving water quality.

By having the rights to the environment written into the constitution we can ensure that every waterway has at least the minimum flow required to retain its aquatic ecosystem. Commercial allocation can be set above this minimum flow. TOP will also ensure that we place a price on water usage, set by the market.

Water pricing is not really a policy instrument to control emissions into water.


Essentially, most of the parties either explicitly or tacitly accept that the NPS-FM 2014 is the vehicle for reaching improved water quality. Given the intensity of the water debate I’m surprised the party policies outlined above showed so few points of difference.  There’s a strong emphasis on E. coli and swimmable standards, but little on other pollutants. None of the parties identified aquatic life (say, fish and invertebrates) as a target or metric for their policies.

Some of the differences are difficult to pin down. A National policy of 90% swimmable by 2040, versus a Labour policy of an unspecified (all?) swimmable over approximately 25 years, versus a Green of all water bodies safe to swim in (no date given) does not generate many degrees of separation.  Riparian strips and buffers are popular for all.  And for the most part, nobody (except it seems, TOP?) is advocating taking control over freshwater management from councils and other regional authorities.

Some of the ambitions outlined above may be appealing, but may not be optimal.  Having a few of the ponds around where I live (which are popular with ducks) managed to the point I can swim in them, isn’t going to produce a lot of benefits. They’re not swimmable even if their E. coli count does get low enough.  There’s probably better environmental things to be spending money on.

One major point of difference is water royalties or levies.  The case for charging water royalties, or fees, or taxes, isn’t convincing. It’s not a “Polluter’s Pay” tax. The impact of it on water degradation is thus very fuzzy.  If it was about pollution you’d be charging a levy on nitrate fertiliser or the like.  It’s just the wrong thing to be taxing. And we return to that pesky problem that our water pollution has a big contribution from non-point sources. It’s really hard to implement “polluter-pays” when we don’t know who the polluters are, how much pollution they generate, and when they generated it.

The water royalties or levies also comes across as an inequitable.  One of the major sources of freshwater pollution is emissions from urban households.  Rather than such households responsible for, or funding water improvements, we see proposals to fund these from rural sources (e.g. the water royalty).  This subsidies some polluting households (i.e. urban) to stop degrading water, by taxing other households (i.e. rural). It’s a mess.

This is the sort of problem we’re going to hit by trying to link taxes with specific spending.  If a water conservation project is good enough to produce a significant social benefit then the case for funding out of taxation already exists. We don’t need a special tax to make the project worthwhile. It already is worthwhile.  On the other hand, there may be better things to spend the money on to improve water.  Restricting the money to be spent in certain ways isn’t optimal.

*Photo above taken by author in Nihotupu Stream

0 Responses to “Watery Blues: Freshwater Quality Policy for the Election”

  • Seconded, great commentary Brendan. Thanks for cutting through the opaque promises and foregone reasoning so many Parties wish to drown our critical faculties with, having disregarded so many collaborative and regional planning processes to date that have tried shifting the focus to broader values or indicators than just E.coli or nitrate for very much better reasons…

  • Thanks Carol and Tom for that feedback. Given the interest in freshwater, I was a bit underwhelmed by many of the responses to the SMC question. I was hoping to see far more than claims about how much E coli we can expect in our rivers, many (many) years from now.