Freshwater groups folded as Govt pushes ahead

Two groups charged by the last government with finding a solution to the freshwater management problem have been put on pause as the Labour-led coalition forges its own way ahead. Sam Sachdeva spoke to the groups’ chairs about their work, and the challenges in finding a way to resolve freshwater issues.

They say still waters run deep, and that’s almost certainly the case when it comes to freshwater management.

On the surface, the Labour-led government appears to have made little movement on the issue of water allocation, but there have been reports of strong disagreement between the various coalition parties on the best approach.

However, it’s clear the Government is striking its own way ahead, with two groups set up under its predecessor going on hold.

The freshwater allocation technical advisory group, established in 2016 to test the practicality of policy proposals, has quietly folded - having apparently never produced a report in its nearly two years of existence.

Environment Minister David Parker says the group has not been asked for any advice since he took office, with current policy work being led by Parker and his officials.

Debate over report

It first met in June 2016 and last met on August 2017, three weeks before Parliament dissolved for the general election.

According to Parker’s office, the group cost taxpayers $80,733 in total, a mixture of members’ fees, expenses and flights.

There appears to be some confusion over whether it was ever meant to report back to the Government: according to Parker, it was never asked for a report, while group chairman David Caygill says its role was to assist officials in their work.

“It was more of a case that we met with them and talked through the various pieces of work they’d done and offered advice," Caygill said.

“It was clear from the outset that we were not expected to produce our own report.”

However, National MP Dr Nick Smith - who as environment minister oversaw the creation of the technical advisory group and the Land and Water Forum - is adamant the former government expected a report on the issues of water allocation and nutrient discharges, and managing bottled water.

“It’s a very difficult public policy issues because it deals with who gets what, and that’s why it’s fiendishly difficult.”

The 60-member Land and Water Forum, set up in 2009 to develop a common direction for freshwater management, has also gone on hiatus after delivering its fifth report to the Labour-led government.

Forum chairman Dr Hugh Logan says the body took similar breaks in the past after presenting work to the National Government, and is ready to be reactivated if needed.

Suggestions that the forum had been unable to reach agreement on anything was “a bit of an urban myth”, Logan says, with only one of the forum’s members disagreeing with recommendations in its most recent report.

He says there has been significant progress in the last decade on the issue of freshwater management, after a long period of inaction.

“It’s a very difficult public policy issues because it deals with who gets what, and that’s why it’s fiendishly difficult.”

Smith says he is disappointed by the Government’s decision to sideline the two groups, saying they were constructive and played a critical role in developing a national policy statement for freshwater management.

“There had been discussions for 20 years about getting a national policy statement, and the only reason I was successful in landing [it] was the work of the Land and Water Forum.”

New national standards planned

Parker says the temporary cessation of the Land and Water Forum is a reflection of the difficulty in getting competing private interests to reach agreement, while the technical advisory group is not needed as the Government seeks to turn policy work into a reality.

“We’ve had all these inputs, it now falls on us to make some decisions ... there is a duty of government to make thorny decisions, you can’t devolve responsibility to somebody else.”

Smith is sceptical of the Government’s progress, saying: “My worry with the new Government is they have been bold on their rhetoric around making progress on these very challenging freshwater issues, but to date we have seen little progress.”

Parker says the Government is planning to introduce new guidance under the Resource Management Act, in the form of both a revised national policy statement and a revised environment standard setting out the principles for nutrient discharge rights.

He hopes both will be introduced into the legislative process within a year.

No 'blank sheet of paper'

Caygill is reluctant to offer the Government public advice as it pursues its own approach, but is clear on one point - there is unlikely to be one “right way” to allocate water or the right to discharge nutrients.

“This isn’t something where you start with a blank sheet of paper ... around New Zealand, water is being allocated and the right to discharge nutrients is being allocated, either directly or implicitly in almost every region.”

Some areas, like Canterbury, Southland and Hawke's Bay, are already well advanced in their approach to allocating water, he says, meaning a centrally-imposed solution would likely “cause significant controversy and difficulty”.

While it is clear that the rights of iwi and hapu must be considered, a settlement similar to the 1992 “Sealord” deal is unlikely, given in that case the government started with a single national fishing quota system.

Logan agrees with Caygill that policymakers need to account for differences in catchments, but believes there is a need for a central government to provide a framework given the “unacceptable level of variability” for nutrient discharges around the country.

“Now it’s an implementation issue, rather than what we should be aiming for as a country.”

Parker also supports a national framework, saying the alternative is “for those contents to be fought through every regional council in the country and they’ll all end up in the Environment Court”.

The Government does not intend to override councils who have existing policies suitable for the job, but provide an outline for those who don’t.

As for iwi rights, Parker is confident the Government can find a solution which all partners agree upon.

He points to nutrient discharge as an area where politicians must account for Maori interests, saying iwi land is disproportionately underdeveloped due to fractionalised ownership and a lack of capital, but that does not mean it should be “locked into” its existing form of use through nutrient discharge levels.

Importantly, Parker says, the “political battle” over water standards has been won, with all political parties in agreement before the last election that swimmability was the appropriate proxy for environmental health.

“Now it’s an implementation issue, rather than what we should be aiming for as a country.”

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