Want clean water? It'll cost you

People pushing for tougher water quality standards need to be realistic about the costs involved and even the effect on house prices, warns central and local government. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The Government, along with local government, is sending out a message that, if New Zealanders want improved water quality, they are going to have to accept higher Council rates – and even higher section and house prices.

It was standing room only at the Freshwater Symposium in Wellington on Monday with Local Government President Lawrence Yule interrupted by a stream of people bringing in extra chairs as he talked of water as "the issue of the moment – in terms of the economy, in terms of the environment and in terms of people's values".

Describing the increasing debate over water quality (as well as the bottling of water for export) as "an emotional response", Yule said the shift to water becoming a mainstream issue was partly down to a good economy which had seen ordinary mums and dads able to worry about "value-based things" that previously only "diehard" people were concerned about.

But, he said, "the cost and 'ability to pay' factor has largely been silent, so far, as we strive to improve water quality.

"That's not to say that we shouldn't been striving to improve water quality – it's simply to say some of our communities don’t realise the cost of getting there and the time it will take."

That seems unlikely to remain the case, with Environment Minister Nick Smith next to take the stage and warning bluntly that: "the bills associated with New Zealand lifting its game around freshwater – and that applies equally whether it is the management of our stormwater systems, the management of our sewerage systems as well as the complex issue of diffuse pollution [mainly rainfall runoff] - is a matter of many billions of dollars."

"And who is going to pay? My simple answer is we are all going to need to share in the pain."

"Ratepayers, tax payers and landowners are all going to have their hands in their pockets for us to be able to lift that game of freshwater management."

The water quality and house price link

And even first home buyers will pay the price, with Smith linking the pressure for improved water quality to continued high house prices (due to tougher standards for the quality of the infrastructure to ensure there is minimal release of pollutants).

"A big responsibility and debate for Government is around the issue of housing affordability, which is directly connected to the price of a section and the way in which local authorities fund that infrastructure," he said.

"How tough we make the standards flows through into the price of sections and in terms of the price of housing."

"In this discussion around freshwater we need to be open and honest with our communities as to those cost implications. So, when it comes to the standard of water we want, if you go out to a public consultation without any mention of cost, you will get a big push for it to be purer and purer – but then when you come to implement that policy you will hit a brick wall because the cost implications for ratepayers are unmanageable.

"I think it's really important … that we are open about the fact that there is a cost and, as much as possible, we try to quantify that cost as we make those decisions about how fast we go and how far we go."

Smith told Newsroom after his speech that e-coli levels in urban catchments were 440 e-coli per 100 mls, compared with 180 per 100 mls in pastoral farming areas.

"If we are to be fair to the farmers in demanding that they get their levels down, urban New Zealand also needs to address their level of pollutants," he said.

"Now there are very large costs associated with two key elements of that e-coli in our urban waterways. The first is old sewerage pipes that are leaking - and there are literally billions of dollars of costs in upgrading those. And, secondly, many of our sewerage systems are unable to cope with high rainfall events in which the system overflows into our natural waterways."

"Equally, there is work going on around what is good practice in the development of new subdivisions and as you toughen the requirements … there are costs that flow onto the cost of the subdivision. Those costs will flow onto the cost of the section, and we need to be open and transparent that, as we set those standards, the end user – the homeowner – does end up paying.

"I hear people say, 'those e-coli levels are just too high, they need to be fixed tomorrow', actually we need to talk with those people about the billions of dollars of costs that falls on councils and ultimately on ratepayers so that we are being open and honest as to the trade-offs between the water quality and the costs that fall on all of us – they fall on the farming community and they fall on urban communities through their rates."