Clean water is a hard balancing act, Fran Wilde, chair of Local Government New Zealand’s regional sector says.
The recent announcement on bottom lines for water quality has re-ignited the debate on the impact of farming on our rivers and lakes.
Farmers and industry are easy targets but it is too simple to blame them entirely for the state of our water. The quality of sewerage and stormwater infrastructure around the country is also significant, not only in rural areas but in urban areas, where some of our dirtiest waterways are located. .
Since 2011 when the National Policy Statement (NPS) on Freshwater was issued by the Government, regional and unitary councils have been charged with “maintaining and improving” water quality. Some of the more recently developed Regional Plans to do this have been very public battles – the Horizons Council’s One Plan is an example.
So while the recent announcement is not a new concept, what has changed is that we now have “bottom lines” or minimum standards. Under the new regime, communities will discuss and agree on the values they place on water and what is needed to improve the quality of water bodies that are below these bottom lines – or that the communities feel should be higher than the minimum.
This is a collaborative approach giving local communities control, rather than having to accept impositions from central government as the Green Party proposes.
A few years ago the Land and Water Forum recommended this type of collaborative community process for this work. Farming representatives involved in the Forum also were very clear that if limits were to be imposed on their farming practices to improve water quality then the same had to apply to local authorities and water infrastructure. The new framework does both of these – the regional council in collaboration with the community is required to set limits for all water quality – what the standard should be and how it is to be achieved.
But improving water quality comes at a cost. There is a cost to farmers as practices are changed, stock rates lowered and investments made in new technology. The same applies to industry – and to communities which have to pay for upgrades to wastewater infrastructure and stormwater networks. Thus when communities decide to improve water quality and set this in their Regional Plan, getting there will cost them. In some smaller communities demographic changes will make this a challenge and aging populations, with many on fixed incomes, may question the expense involved in the water infrastructure upgrades.
Many local councils have already invested heavily in upgrading sewerage treatment plants and it’s inevitable
that others will have to follow. The question for our communities will be how to fund these upgrades, taking into account not only those demographic changes but widespread calls to hold rates increases to a minimum. . .
We’d all like pristine water everywhere, but the cost of achieving and then maintaining that would be exorbitant.
Councils and the communities they serve know that clean waterways is a hard balancing act but they are in the best position to work out what is desirable, achievable and affordable.