Money, money everywhere, but not a drop of water reform

Huge sums are earmarked to clean up waterways, but what is the Government doing about stopping pollution? David Williams reports

Three years ago, water spilled over as a big election issue.

Prime Minister Bill English said he’d consider charging bottled water exporters and the opposition Labour Party suggested it was time to charge large irrigators. That spurred a memorable moment in the election campaign – a protest by farmers in Morrinsville, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern’s hometown, including a “She’s a pretty communist” sign.

Queenmaker New Zealand First chose Labour, of course, with the Green Party tacked on, the “water tax” was diluted and the debate floated away. But it’s worth remembering that one of the mandates this Government had when elected was to clean up the country’s lakes and rivers.

It started well.

In October 2018, the Government announced its blueprint to clean up waterways. “We’re not going to leave the hard issues for future generations,” Environment Minister David Parker said, promising “a noticeable improvement in water quality within five years”. (It’s a timeframe Parker’s sticking to.)

New rules would be in place by 2020, Parker said in that joint announcement with Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor. They would come in the form of a new National Policy Statement (NPS) for Freshwater Management and a new National Environmental Standard (NES).

Two-and-a-half years and two Budgets later, however, the country is still waiting. And there appears to be a split in the coalition.

Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones, of New Zealand First, told Stuff in March that with tourism hobbled, it wasn’t the time to impose new regulations on farmers.

"We need to be very mindful because they are going to be maintaining our international earnings," he said.

Parker isn’t known to be monosyllabic, but he answered simply “yes” to two Newsroom questions yesterday – is the Government’s intention to bring in new water rules before the election, and is there agreement with O’Connor about the direction of the regulations. (O’Connor had said it was appropriate to delay the reforms.)

“We delayed it a bit because of Covid,” Parker says.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the last election.

Sure, the Government wound down the previous government’s Crown Irrigation fund, but many irrigation and water storage projects have been granted loans through the Provincial Growth Fund.

A worrying, but unsurprising, government report released last month said the vast majority of rivers in urban, farming and forestry areas are polluted.

Despite its election mandate on water, the Government is yet to make a difference, freshwater ecologist Mike Joy, of Victoria University of Wellington, says.

“I’ve been involved in these working groups and things, but so far it’s all talk. The reality is, and we know this, that if the legislation were to come out tomorrow it would be five to 10 years before we would see any change on the ground.”

All the while, he says, Kiwis have to put up with further deterioration of the environment.

“There’s no excuse for holding back on this.”

“The $1.1 billion that’s gone into nature-based jobs, well, that could be easily dwarfed by the wrong decisions being made about the $20 billion.” – Kevin Hague

Yesterday’s Budget was big on billions but light on detail.

The $50 billion response fund (National’s Paul Goldsmith: “Slush fund”), included nearly $16 billion of new spending and $20 billion kept back by Finance Minister Grant Robertson for future announcements.

Environmental highlights included a $1.1 billion environmental jobs package, with the aim of creating 11,000 jobs. Of that, $433 million is earmarked to create 4000 jobs in regional environmental projects.

(Note how the announcement feeds into the New Zealand First drive for regional jobs. Parker says: “It certainly got bigger Government support because of Covid, because it’s a job-rich area.”)

Kevin Hague, a former Green Party MP who now heads conservation lobby group Forest & Bird, is delighted. His group sent the Government a briefing document about a month ago advocating for nature-based jobs, and calling for action on problem such as wilding pines and wallabies, and improvements to fish passage and wetland restoration.

“What they’ve done actually pretty closely reflects what we recommended.”

If the money’s well-used, and it’s paired with policy changes, it’s probably enough to halt the ecological crisis, Hague says – while noting there’s little good news in the Budget for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The biggest question mark, he says, is the $20 billion “still sitting in Grant Robertson’s back pocket”. “The $1.1 billion that’s gone into nature-based jobs, well, that could be easily dwarfed by the wrong decisions being made about the $20 billion.”

If the Budget mantra was “jobs”, much of the response was “tell us more”.

“A $3 billion dollar investment in infrastructure is welcome news for rural New Zealand – but while the dollars are there, the detail isn’t,” said DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle.

Federated Farmers were tickled by a $1.1 billion environmental jobs spend, and money earmarked for tackling wallabies and wilding pines. "But as with so many aspects of the Budget announcements, the devil will be in the detail," vice-president Andrew Hoggard said.

(Another big winner was Predator Free 2050, which will received an extra $19 million a year for four years, for jobs-boosting predator-killing projects.)

Greenpeace NZ’s boss Russel Norman, a former Green Party co-leader, gave a golf clap to the $433 million for freshwater restoration, and a $56 million boost for home insulation.

Norman, too, was keenly interested in the unallocated pot of $20 billion. "Mr Robertson and the Government will need to focus on the future and the main threat to our existence – the climate and ecological crises.”

Parker thinks the $433 million environmental jobs scheme will be well-received, especially because regional councils have been bringing forward similar ideas as so-called “shovel ready” projects. (Actually, the scheme totals $500 million, as it’s taking $12 million from last year’s sustainable land use package and $55 million from the freshwater improvement fund.)

Broadly, work includes removing sediment, stabilising riverbanks, including planting, and installing mini wetlands, in partnership with councils and farmers. “It’s a big chunk of money so it will distribute new job opportunities for some of those people who have lost their jobs throughout the country.”

Money could flow to all parts of the country, but Parker specifically mentions the Kaipara Harbour, north of Auckland city, as a place with significant sediment problems. It’s the spawning grounds for the majority of snapper on the west coast of the North Island.

The coalition Government’s had three Budgets now so what has it delivered for the environment?

Parker says it’s yet to take decisions on the final regulatory package to tackle water pollution – including the NPS on freshwater and NES, and changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA). “But that regulatory package together with this money to help the on-the-ground changes that are needed, plus changes to the RMA that enable faster plan changes, work together as a very powerful combination to turn things around so that we meet our objective of stopping the degradation and seeing material improvement within five years.”

He bristles at the idea there’s not many achievements to point to. Work continues through the freshwater improvement fund – comprising $100 million over 10 years, plus an extra $47 million for vulnerable catchments in 2017. The big increase will come, Parker says, once the reforms are finalised.

“You don’t want to get ahead of your regulatory package too much.”

Joy, the freshwater ecologist, thinks the idea of an environmental clean-up now is backward.

“That’s the thing that always drives me nuts,” he says. “There’s some great stuff in the Budget for the environment but you’ve got to stop polluting before you clean up. It’s just pointless to be throwing money at cleaning something up while you’re still polluting it. We have to stop kidding ourselves.”

Instead, he says, the Government should put money into encouraging farmers to shift to lower-intensity, regenerative farming.

Joy picks out dairying – a huge export earner for the country, which will rise in stature with international tourism being halted because of the global pandemic.

The unvirtuous circle, if you like, is that nitrogen fertiliser, created using fossil fuels, drives intensive dairying, including the use of imported palm kernel as feed. Water is burnt off using coal-fired power plants, and the resulting powder is sold overseas.

“That whole system is completely unsustainable and very harmful for the environment,” Joy says.

The ecologist firmly believes Parker’s Government won’t make any material difference to waterways within the promised five-year timeframe. “That was always going to be an incredibly tough ask to get a change in that short a time. Things don’t turn round that quickly.”

So the country heads into another election – slotted for September – in which little progress has been made on improving the quality of rivers, lakes and streams. The picture will get even worse for the Government if it can’t get its water reforms over the line by then.

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