Working towards water standards

By Bill Kaye-Blake 04/11/2012

Various colleagues and I have been trying for years to get research funded on the preferences of New Zealanders regarding the environment. Bits and pieces of work get done — notably, the public perception work by Huey, Cullen, and Kerr from Lincoln University (here’s a summary conference paper (pdf)). We have grander ambitions, though. We want to understand the rank ordering of different environmental attributes amongst different subpopulations, and the economic value of those attributes in comparison to other things of value. Methodologically, it wouldn’t break much new ground. That’s actually a strength. If we end up squabbling over method, that’s taking away from the content of the findings.

Why? Isn’t it obvious that we want clear air and clean water and biodiversity? Well, yes, it is. We also want health care and tertiary education and public transportation and wi-fi and rainbows and unicorns. Maybe not unicorns. But you get the drift.

Also, different subpopulations have different environmental preferences. Sometimes, the differences are stark, such as when a road project encounters a taniwha. More often, though, the differences are more subtle and the conflicts more subdued.

The Dominion Post reports on a just such a difference of opinion:

Millions of dollars pumped into cleaning Lake Taupo of excess nitrogen levels may be damaging the lake’s valuable trout-fishing industry by stripping the lake of valuable food sources for trout.

Anglers from Advocates of the Tongariro River say the acclaimed Lake Taupo fishery is in “crisis”, with catch numbers down and smaller fish being caught than before.

Nitrogen levels in Lake Taupo have been a concern for a while. Agriculture leads to nitrate leaching, and nitrogen levels in the lake are rising. The regional council has a plan for protecting the lake, and a considerable amount of scientific research has gone on. It turns out, though, that not everyone agrees. More precisely, people disagree about just how clean the lake should be.

Economics is particularly concerned with decisions at the margin. In this case, the question is whether to put the marginal dollar into reducing the nitrogen in Lake Taupo or to put it to some other use. Partly, this is a question of environmental science. It is also partly a question of personal preferences and social decision making.

What is frustrating for me (and other researchers) is that we don’t even have the data to start a decent analysis. We don’t have it because no one will pony up the money to pay for it. We know what the key questions are, we know how to do the work, and we know who can do it.

Without that research, decisions will continue to be haphazard: one part Ministry thinking, one part Environment Court decisions, one part newspaper articles, and several parts guesswork.