Government advised to put price on water; EPA wants more money

Sharper incentives to be frugal with water drawn from New Zealand’s lakes and rivers will help clean up our waterways, faster, according to a briefing to the incoming Minister for the Environment, Eloise Gibson reports.

As New Zealand’s population and farming industries keep growing, the demand for fresh water will rise, even as climate change causes more prolonged droughts and periods of low flows in rivers in parts of the east and north of the country.

Ministry for the Environment officials have called for several changes: notably, more central government direction to councils and “sharper economic incentives” to send water where it will be most valuable.

That may mean introducing a cap and trade scheme, or a price on water or its discharge, say officials.

Right now, fresh water is given out on first-come-first-served basis, and people wanting new permits may find them all-but-impossible to get, if they are in already over-stretched catchments.

“A new approach to allocation is needed which will better value fresh water and encourage smarter production methods for commercial use,” says the briefing. “The Ministry advises doing this through changes in decision-making and accountability, and better allocation tools.”

Officials mooted the idea of creating a new national water authority to run a national market for water. The authority could also monitor and enforce the rules.

As the briefing notes, any economic tools would raise the issue of water ownership by iwi and hapu, whose claims would need to be worked through.

Right now, regional councils manage their waterways largely alone, and councils that have doled out too many water usage rights have little power to claw back old permits, even if the catchment is badly over-stretched. Beefing up the claw-back powers would help improve things, says the Ministry.

The same briefing criticizes some regional councils, saying some of them are delaying action to comply with the government’s freshwater national policy statement.

The briefing recommends a new system of performance-monitoring to nudge local bodies to clean up waterways faster, overseen by an independent watchdog such as the Office of the Auditor-General or Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

“Most regional councils have made progress. However, the Ministry does not yet consider that any region has fully completed implementation,” it says.

“The Ministry considers that the incentives on regional councils within the freshwater management system often do not align with the outcomes the Government and New Zealand public are seeking….better public information and increased transparency will lead to council decisions that better reflect their communities’ wishes.”

The briefing makes clear that a dearth of good, national data is hampering the clean-up effort.

“Significant work required to reconcile data to answer even basic questions, such as how much water is consented and how much is actually used,” it says.

EPA wants more money

Elsewhere, the Environmental Protection Authority has used its briefing to its minister to make a dramatic plea for money.

The EPA, which recently sparked controversy with its handling of substances like Glyphosate, a weed killer, says without a funding boost it cannot keep assessing a list of approximately 300 “chemicals of interest”, or progress work to improve territorial authorities’ ability to enforce the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms.

“From 1 July 2018, the EPA’s annual Crown funding will reduce by $4.45 million, to $20.81 million. This has serious implications for our ability to maintain core activities,” says the briefing.

The assessment work in question is a reassessment of 33 pesticides identified since 2001, of which it has already done 24. The agency wants to expand the list beyond pesticides, as well as finishing the other 9 chemicals.

“We are developing sophisticated tools to screen and prioritise these chemicals for EPA Chief Executive-initiated reassessment….By not reassessing chemicals of concern as new information becomes available, the EPA is not protecting the environment, or the health and safety of people and communities,” says the briefing.

To bolster its case, the agency compared itself favorably to other Crown-funded entities such as the Financial Markets Authority, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority and the Commerce Commission.

“A comparison on a per employee basis with these other entities indicates that the EPA’s budget is at a much lower level (around $189,000 per employee, compared to respectively $202,000, $221,000, and $219,000).”