The cost of water

The quality of New Zealand’s rivers has been a bone of contention recently, with dairy farmers getting much of the blame for a deterioration in water quality.

Now, the export of pristine New Zealand water to overseas companies has become another touch button for Kiwis.

Prime Minister Bill English opened the debate at the weekend by basically saying it was too hard to impose a charge on the export of water. This is despite royalties being applied to all sorts of things like oil, gas, coal and minerals. It seems ludicrous a user-pays government cannot work out a plan to charge for water, if it is willing.

Mr English then softened his stance, indicating the Government has written to its advisory group on water, telling it to investigate putting a price on exported water and to report back by the end of the year.

By softening his stance, and asking the advisory group to report on this contentious issue, Mr English has opened up the Government to a raft of complaints and claims from people who now see water as belonging to someone — otherwise how can you impose a cost?

At the same time, Mr English says there is ‘‘real public concern’’ about foreign companies’ access to water. There is also a long-held deep-seated view among New Zealanders no-one owns water and it is free.

Treaty of Waitangi claims have previously wanted water to be recognised as part of Maoritanga and now the Whanganui River has been given similar rights to a person.

Mr English may now be regretting issuing instructions for the letter to the advisory group, but the stable door is open.

The group is part of the Government’s freshwater reform programme, jointly run by the Ministry for the Environment, the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Treasury, who have been working on issues about water and allocation since 2009.

It seems simple to charge a fee on the amount of water being exported. Given the cost of bottled water at a retail level, a 10c-per-litre fee would seem reasonable. However, the advisory group will then have to decide who actually owns the water pouring out from South Westland, for example.

Otago Regional councillor Michael Laws is set to play a large part in tracking down what is happening within this region. He has asked the ORC chairman and chief executive to tell him how many water companies have been granted permission to take millions of litres of water for commercial bottling purposes from the Central Otago and Queenstown Lakes region.

Mr Laws says the ORC has been very secretive and the need for openness and transparency is something he is fighting for on the council. All power to him on this matter.

It is worth remembering the amount of fresh water pouring into the sea each day from rivers like the Waitaki and Clutha is immensely more than will ever be bottled from aquifers near the Dart River. And, on its way, the water from those two large rivers creates renewable energy for New Zealanders.

Mr English was correct in his first impressions of there being many greater water issues to contend with than charging and they include pollution, effluent and the fact some rivers in high dairying areas are drying up at unexpected times.

But, now the Prime Minister has opened himself up to a possibility of water charges for overseas bottlers, the Government will be continually pressured from the Opposition parties, and media, for updates on pricing progress.

If it emerges, as is already being reported, Chinese companies are involved in the export of New Zealand water, New Zealand may face trade barriers in response to a change in water policy.

Maori will make their voices heard and the Maori Party will likely bring water ownership claims to any coalition negotiations after the September 23 election.

Water — its quality and its cost — has become a wide and major election headache for Mr English.

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