What is Wrong with Govt Policy?

Having observed our science panel debate the issues we were in a good position to form a reasonable person’s view on what needs to be done to care for our rivers. 

We might be wrong, but we think that Kiwis value their waterways:

This isn’t some “greenie” view. It is part of what it means to be Kiwi. We can’t keep chasing the next dollar regardless of the impact on the environment. There have to be limits – otherwise it is just dumb and dirty growth. 

Based on this and our understanding of the science, the Government’s plan for our waterways is a step forward, but isn’t good enough.

Asking local communities to manage their river is a great innovation, but questions remain over whether central and regional government will resource groups sufficiently to do the job (i.e. running costs, monitoring water, providing science & economic expertise), and then listen to what they say. 

For the sake of our rivers the Government’s plan needs to include the aspiration for all waterways to be safe for swimming, fishing and food gathering

Sadly some rivers could be very expensive to restore. It is far cheaper to keep the good rivers we currently have in good condition. We can’t wait until 2030 like the Government is proposing. All waterways need to be maintained or improved, starting now

Farming is a major part of our economy. We don’t want to stuff that up, but nor do we want our water stuffed up either. Cattle need to be kept out of waterways. Where possible waterways need to be fenced and planted. 

Many dairy farmers are already doing their best to farm sustainably. The dairy industry is working to get farmers to adopt good management practices. This is about using nutrients more efficiently, so it should improve profit and reduce environmental impact. However, sheep/beef farmers have a long way to go. The dairy industry will need to help get their sheep/beef cousins across the line if they want to continue expanding production. 

This is where economic instruments could help water quality. Once regions have clear nutrient limits, leaching rights should be tradable. This would be one way to pay sheep and beef farmers e.g. to fence and plant rivers and slopes, so that dairy farming can continue expanding. The nutrient loading into waterways from sheep and beef farming is far lower per metre of waterway than it is from intensive dairying. But the profitability of intensive dairying is higher so the projections in several regions are for more conversions of sheep and beef farms to dairying.

If a region or catchment has a target ceiling for nutrient loading to its waterways then allocating those loading rights across farms becomes a challenge. Tradeable rights are the optimal approach in such cases. For instance, if the rights are tradeable then a prospective dairying convertor could obtain nutrient loading rights sufficient for their intensive farming by financing some waterway riparian planting and fencing for a sheep and beef farmer in the catchment who – due to the limited profitability of their operation – has yet to invest in these nutrient-leaching reduction methods. The sheep and beef farmer would then have surplus leaching rights that would be taken up by the dairy farm that had financed the investment.

The way that rights are allocated is important. Initial rights should not be based on the past (as is being done in Canterbury) – this punishes sheep/beef farmers (who haven’t leached much) and creates a perverse incentive prior to the introduction of the regime for farmers to increase fertilizer use (because it will increase future leaching rights).

Apparently no one owns water – but some private businesses can use it more than others. Permits are use rights – de facto property rights. We need to resolve Treaty claims for fresh water, and create tradable use rights as we did for fisheries. Again, this makes sure we get the best out of a limited resource. This should be supplemented by a resource rental, as was initially intended for fisheries.