Water policy inconsistent, unfair


Labour’s environment spokesman David Parker showed up yet more flaws in the party’s water tax policy on Q&A yesterday:

. . . No, look, you know, if there’s a cost of cleaning up our rivers, cos I think it’s your birthright and mine to be able to swim in our local river in summer, and for our kids to put their head under without getting crook, there’s a cost to that cleanup. As Nick Smith said last week, he thought that the cost for central government was going to be about $100 million per annum. Now, who should pay that? Should we tax pensioners? Or working people? Or should the farmers who are polluting make a contribution?  . . 

As a general rule, polluters should pay and farmers who pollute now do pay if successfully prosecuted by regional councils. Prosecutions can be not just for actual pollution but also for potential pollution from, for example, effluent spills which could reach waterways, even if they don’t.

But problems with waterways aren’t always the result of current practices, they’ve built up over years, even decades. It is unfair to tax all irrigators now for damage done in the past for which many wouldn’t have been responsible.

It is equally unfair to tax irrigators who aren’t contributing to pollution to clean up after those who are and to tax those in one area to repair damage done in another.

This tax isn’t going to be levied just on polluters it’s going to be levied on all irrigators no matter how good their farming practices and environmental stewardship are.

Then there’s the inconsistency of charging some commercial water users but not all:

. . . CORIN Here’s the thing – you’ve targeted farmers. But why are you giving an exemption to Coca Cola and various other businesses in the cities?

DAVID Well, what we’ve said is that domestic and stock water will never pay. We’re not interested in the municipal sources of water. You know, Coca Cola, they already pay a dollar per cubic metre or a dollar per thousand litres to the Auckland Council for the water they drew. We’re not going to charge them twice. . . 

Good grief! Does he think irrigation water arrives at the farm gate for free?

To get water from the North Otago Irrigation Company (NOIC), farmers have to buy shares and pay a cost of about $80 $800 per hectare per year. That covers the infrastructure and delivery costs, which are the same costs Coca Cola pays for council water.

If Labour isn’t going to charge Coca Cola twice, why is it going to charge farmers twice?

. . .CORIN But it does feel, there will be many in the farming sector who will be frustrated and feel they’re being singled out.

DAVID It is them who are polluting our rivers, so I don’t know how that’s unfair.

CORIN Well, they’re certainly a contributor.

DAVID Well, no. Let’s deal with one of the issues that Steven Joyce said. He said, ‘Look at the cities.’ You know, over the last decade, cities have improved their quality.

CORIN But they do pollute waterways as well.

DAVID Not nearly as much as they did in recent decades. And who’s paid for the cost of that cleanup? The people in the cities. They’ve paid for better sewerage treatment; the factories have cleaned up. And over those same decades, the rural sector rivers are getting worse. Now, who should pay? Should the polluter pay or should we tax pensioners? . . 

It doesn’t matter how many times or different ways he says it. Problems have built up over decades and not all are caused by those irrigating now.

Most farmers have changed their practices to stop pollution, to repair damage and enhance waterways.

Labour’s policy won’t give them any credit for that, will charge all irrigators regardless of whether or not they are causing problems, and will tax farmers in one place to clean up water in another.

And not all the problems in rural rivers are caused by irrigation.

Water quality in Otago has been good so far this summer, Otago Regional Council (ORC) seasonal recreational water quality testing shows.

Three sites have had alert/amber warnings at certain times since the summer round of testing began at the beginning of December, but readings for those sites at other times and for all other sites have been considered safe for swimming. . . 

This summer the Kakanui River at Clifton Falls Bridge is the only site to have its most recent reading in the amber/alert range, recording 510 parts of E. coli per 100ml of water on December 28.

ORC duty director Scott MacLean said there was a large colony of nesting gulls at the site, in rugged terrain, about 5km above the Clifton Falls bridge.

“Unfortunately, these nesting gull colonies are likely to continue to cause high E. coli concentrations in the upper Kakanui River, particularly during the breeding season.”

Other amber readings were recorded in the Taieri River at Outram on December 12 and 19, and in the Taieri River at Waipiata on December 15.

Mr MacLean said the Outram spikes were caused by high river flows on December 12 and heavy localised rainfall on December 19, and the Waipiata spike was caused by rising flows at the time of sampling, due to rainfall on December 12.

Readings at both sites had since fallen to the green band of fewer than 260 E. coli parts per 100ml of water, which was considered very safe for swimming, Mr MacLean said. . . 

Seagulls and heavy rain, not irrigation, caused spikes in pollution and the poor water quality after the rainfall lasted only a few days. Nature caused that problem and nature fixed it without any political interference or tax.

And not all councils have paid for better treatment.

The state of the Invercargill City Council’s stormwater system has been called a “dirty little secret” that has been allowed to exist for years.

Federated Farmers had a crack at both the city council and Environment Southland about the city’s stormwater system at a resource consent hearing on Thursday.

Federated Farmers executive David Rose, at the hearing, said: “It was a revelation to us, this dirty little secret in Invercargill hidden from Invercargill ratepayers, how rundown the stormwater system is”. 

“The ratepayers of Invercargill are our cousins, our family and our friends. It’s a big shock to the farming community also.”

In the council’s own evidence, it accepts stormwater was contaminated with sewage, Rose said. 

The council has applied to discharge water and contaminants from stormwater systems into surface water bodies and into open drains, for a term of 35 years. 

A total of 147 discharge pipes draining to the Waikiwi Stream, Waihopai River, Otepuni Stream, Kingswell Creek and Clifton Channel are covered by the application. 

But Environment Southland says the consent should be turned down, because receiving waters and the New River Estuary will be effected. 

Environment Southland principal consents officer Stephen West’s report says, “With the known sewage contamination of the stormwater network, including the engineered overflow points, it is likely that the discharges will have more than minor adverse effect on the environment”.

Effects on water quality within the receiving waters and in the New River Estuary appeared to be more than minor, it says. . . 

No farm would apply for consent which would allow it to pollute waterways for 35 years.

But there’s nothing to be gained by widening the rural-urban divide as Labour is attempting to.

We all want clean water.

That won’t be achieved by Labour’s policy which will raise issues around Maori ownership of water.

The most effective way of improving water quality on or near irrigated farms is for farmers to make changes on-farm and to invest in new technology. Labour’s policy takes money from productive uses like that and channels it through a bureaucracy. In doing so it takes responsibility and accountability away from farmers and worse provides a disincentive for them to make improvements to their practices.

So far the announcement has raised more questions than it answers:

“The Labour Party’s glib and misleading announcement this week about a new water tax was disappointing for all New Zealanders,” says IrrigationNZ Chief Executive, Andrew Curtis.

“Farmers are clear that a tax on irrigation would affect all New Zealanders through higher food prices but Labour has failed to address this, even though many of their voters cannot afford to pay more for groceries,” he says.

“We think the tax is inconsistent in treating water used for irrigation differently to other types of commercial water use and there are a range of complex issues associated with how it would be implemented which appear not to have been thought through at all,” he adds.

“Kiwis have a right to understand the tax before they vote.”

IrrigationNZ requests that Labour provides written answers to the questions below so that voters can understand the impact of this new tax on all New Zealanders.

“Labour – Let’s Answer This” – New Zealanders deserve answers on water tax!” 

What is the impact of Labour’s water tax?

  1. How much tax will be charged per unit of water?
  2. Who will be charged?
  3. What impact will the tax have on price increases for food eg fruit, vegetables, meat, milk, beer, bread, wine, ice-cream, and how will poorer households afford price increases?
  4. How many jobs would be lost across New Zealand due to our food becoming unaffordable at home and not competitive internationally?
  5. How will a water tax enable local communities to implement solutions to their environmental issues?

How is Labour’s water tax fair?

  1. Who owns New Zealand’s water?
  2. Who will the tax be paid to?
  3. Why is it fair to tax some types of commercial water use and not tax others?
  4. Exporters already pay income tax – why should they pay twice?
  5. Why is Labour not going to introduce a sewage tax in town water supplies when the Our Freshwater 2017Report found that E.coli and nitrate-nitrogen concentrations are highest in urban catchments?

How is Labour’s water tax proposal workable?

  1. If the tax varies depending on water scarcity, water quality and weather conditions then how many different tax rates will there be?
  2. Which organisations have you consulted on the tax?
  3. Can Labour confirm that those affected by the tax will set the new tax level as suggested by the Leader?
  4. If tax payers have a different view to Labour will the tax payers’ view prevail?

How will Labour’s water tax address the impacts of climate change and existing investment?

  1. How will taxing water used to grow food increase New Zealand’s resilience to climate change?
  2. Over the last 5 years there has been $1.7 billion investment in modern efficient irrigation infrastructure – what impact will the tax have on this?

Honest answers to these questions would kill the policy, which is what it deserves for being so inconsistent and unfair.

Water quality is an issue all over the country, not just where there’s irrigation and it can be more of an issue when the water falls straight from the sky as rain than when it’s controlled through irrigators.

All farmers should, and most do, play an important role in improving the health of waterways.

Picking on just some of them with a tax will hinder the good work already being undertaken, provide a disincentive to do more and open a can of worms over water ownership.

A tale of two standards


First we have a farmer:

A Southland farmer has been sentenced to community work for discharging dairy farm effluent to land.

Damon Shane Buckingham appeared before Judge Craig Thompson in the Environment Court in Invercargill yesterday after admitting discharging the effluent to land in circumstances where it may have entered a waterway.

He was sentenced to 40 hours of community work. . .

Then we have this:

. . . Invercargill City Council environmental health services manager John Youngson said a high level of sewerage-system failure had resulted in surface and ground water being contaminated with human faeces and pollution in the nearby Waihopai River.

Sanitary survey dye tests revealed effluent on 20 properties, direct discharge from septic tanks into waterways on 15 properties and indirect discharge into waterways from 16 properties via soakholes or filed tiles. . .

Why do we have one standard for animal effluent discharges and another for those from people?

It seems especially unfair when the farmer was charged for animal effluent which could reach a waterway and no-one was charged for human effluent which did reach a river.

Southland’s loss NZ’s gain?


Invercargill City Council has resolved to take out full-page advertisements in all major New Zealand newspapers to get across what it calls the “correct information” about the deal Meridian Energy and the smelter’s owner, Rio Tinto, are trying to negotiate over power prices.

I’m pleased my rates won’t be paying for that.

The rest of New Zealand, or at least the newspaper reading segment of it, might have a great deal of sympathy for the plight of workers facing redundancy and the downstream impact on Invercargill and Southland.

But sympathy is very unlikely to translate into action and if it did, what action would that be?

When the price of aluminium was high it might have made sense to import bauxite, use our relatively cheap power to convert it into aluminium and export that. But the world price of aluminium has plummeted and Rio Tinto says the power isn’t cheap enough to keep it here.

Getting across the “correct information” isn’t going to change that.

The ads are going to be even less effective if those who read them also read that there’d be no trouble getting excess power to Auckland if the smelter closed.

The ICC would be better employed working out how to attract businesses to the south to help employ those who would lose jobs in the smelter closed.

That might also provide a use for at least some of the excess power so it wouldn’t need to be sent north.

Without that, the loss of the smelter in Southland could turn into the gain of a greater supply and therefore lower priced power for the rest of New Zealand.

Fed Farmers gets rates relief for Invercargill cockies


Who do you call when your rates double without warning?

Invercargill cockies called Federated Farmers and they’ve negotiated a change in the city council policy

Federated Farmers is praising Invercargill City Council for listening to farmers in order to crack a rates impasse that had soured relations between farmers and the City Council.  The changes will mean an average saving of around $3,000 per farm from 2010 compared to 2009.

“Both Doug Fraser, Federated Farmers Southland local government spokesperson, and I worked with 70 farmers and Federated Farmers staff to lobby Council to realign its rating policy,” says David Rose, Federated Farmers associate spokesperson for local government.

“The rating burden on Invercargill farmers just doubled in 2009 without any warning and I suspect this took even the City Council by surprise.

“Thanks to the hard work and facts-based lobbying of Federated Farmers, we’re able to celebrate Council officially announcing that it will take farm rates back to a more historic level.  This means the rates that farmers paid last year will roughly halve and this is great news.

“I believed that this rights last year’s wrong.  I am full of praise that the Council is honourably admitting that last year’s rating levels were wrong and it’s a big positive that we can build the relationship between the Council and Federated Farmers.

“It demonstrates the constructive role that Federated Farmers plays for New Zealand’s farmers and proves that honest dialogue achieves results.

“Federated Farmers is now working with the Invercargill City Council to review funding policy, which Council has committed to do and this prospect is exciting.  We are looking to align the rates that farmers pay with the services that they receive. 

“However, for now, we’re celebrating this success and genuinely thank Invercargill City Council for listening and understanding our concerns,” Mr Rose concluded.  

Federated Farmers’ role as an advocate for farmers and the wider rural community is an even more important one now that New Zealand is increasingly urbanised.

I hope the farmers who benefit from this decision, and others elsewhere who might need the organisation’s help one day, recognise that and support the organisation which supports us.

Kindy gate latch saga goes on


No-one’s saying much after yesterday’s meeting between Cottage Kindergarten, Invercargill City Council and Building and Housing representatives over the impasse over the height of the kindy’s gate latch.

The kindy won’t lower the latch because it will put children at risk and the council won’t give a code compliance certificate until its lowered to provide disabled access.

Earlier in the week Southland Kindergarten Association president Paddy Lewis was outspoken on the issue. When contacted for comment yesterday he described the meeting as “constructive” and “amicable” .

He expected the Department of Building and Housing to give a decision in a few weeks.

It’s a very poor reflection on the country and its laws when it takes weeks for common sense to prevail.

Minister may step into kindy dispute


Building Minister Shane Jones may fly to Invercargill if the dispute between Cottage Kindergarten and the Invercargill District Council can’t be sorted out.

The problem arose when the council building inspector wouldn’t sign off the building compliance because the catch on the gate was too high for people in wheel chairs and the kindy wouldn’t lower it because if they did children could reach it.

Other pre-school and child care centres don’t seem to have had this problem. Does that mean it’s not the law at fault but the Invercargill council’s interpretation of it; or has it sensibly been ignored in other places?

Dead kids or disabled access?


A Southland kindergarten is facing a catch 22 situation because if it meets the building code requirement to provide access for people in wheel chairs it will not be able to keep children safely in its grounds.

As the Southland Times says:

 It is madness, just madness, to require a kindy to lower the exterior latch of its gate to afford easier access for the disabled, if this puts it in reach of little 3 and 4-year-olds to escape, and go play in traffic.

 . . . It might seem like there’s an element of Cock Robin to the Invercargill City Council’s assertion that it cannot issue a Code Compliance certificate because its hands are tied.

Actually, that might be right. The real sticking point does appear to be a Department of Building and Housing ruling in favour of the Building Act.

The act, bless it, does require reasonable and adequate access for the disabled.

As far as the kindy is concerned — and presumably this would apply to other kindergartens as well — this has been interpreted as meaning the external latch on the main gate must be lowered from 1.6m to 1.2m. Kindy kids are well capable of employing a little low cunning to get around that suddenly successful obstacle.

The snortworthy conflict here is that there are also requirements under our laws for early childhood education that require, every bit as implacably, that children cannot leave the centre without the knowledge of staff.

Council environmental and planning services director William Watt sympathises that the kindy is caught between a rock and a hard place.

So it is. The rocks are in the heads of the bureaucrats. It’s tempting, though unfair, to add that the hard place would be their hearts. In truth, they do, of course, understand the need for reason to prevail. They just seem to need some motivation to ensure they play their own parts to achieve this.

Among those who have become involved is Invercargill MP Eric Roy, who sees the alarming big picture of every childcare centre in the country having children at risk when they undergo re-licensing or try to make improvements to their facilities.

He says that when he asked Education Minister Chris Carter which was more important, disabled access or children’s safety, the response was that “both needs must be considered equally”.

Such an answer is palpably nonsense. Not everything balances.

Dead kids versus denied disabled? One of those outcomes actually is worse. See if you can guess which one, Minister.

At least the Minister of Building, Shane Jones, made more sense when he replied that a solution must be found that meets the purpose of both the Building Act and early childhood regulations.

Seldom do we find ourselves quite so relieved to receive a statement of the bleeding obvious.

This is the problem with one-size fits all regulations.

Of course people with disabilities should be able to have reaonsable access to public places, but that right must come second to children’s right to be safe at kindy.

When our daughter was young I occasionally invoked the this-is-a-matter-of-safety clause clause which she knew was non-negotiable. The Building Act needs to have a little flexibility to apply the same rationale so that rights of access give way to safety if they’re in conflict. 

What we need here is not so much the law of common sense as common sense law.

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