Scientist unimpressed with Labour’s water policies

at Sciblogs looks at the freshwater policies of the parties. First he notes:

Initially though, there are some aspects about freshwater management in New Zealand that need to be understood.  The first is that the statutory responsibility for managing freshwater in NZ lies with regional authorities.  Central government doesn’t give say, sawmills discharge rights into rivers or farmers’ irrigation rights to .  That’s what councils/regional authorities do.  The second is we do have a framework for national water standards.  This process was started by the previous Labour government and developed and made operational by the current National (in 2014).  These require certain standards to be reached nationally, and (with some exceptions), be met by 2025.

He comments on National’s policy:

The swimmable goal described above address the E. coli issue (but not others).  E. coli is a common bacterium found in the guts of humans, livestock and birds.  High E. coli counts make water unswimmable by causing illness in some swimmers. What is not made clear is that these swimmable standards don’t apply to freshwater that is too small or shallow to swim in, in the first place. These will still have to meet the recreational standard however.  The current and planned expenditures on clean-ups at least, addresses some of the other non-specified pollutants. …

Again, most of this is about controlling E. coli levels.  The new proposed rules on sewage discharge recognises that urban areas are a major source of E. coli pollution, and have been somewhat neglected with the focus on rural sources.  There are no new initiatives to control other pollutants, such as nitrates.  This is still up to councils and regional authorities to manage.

Then he looks at Labour:

Since a tax on water-use was first mooted by Labour, there has been high interest in their freshwater management policy. Details have been sparse. It appears at least, Labour intends continuing with the NPS-FM framework for water improvement. The response above however, is woefully short of detail and costings. Many associated issues in this brief response are poorly explained.

For instance, what does truly swimmable mean?  Does this mean using other metrics than the E. coli count?  David Parker was suggesting Periphyton earlier this year. Is this going to be included?

A generation is roughly 25 years. Is that stricter than the current goal of 90% by 2040? If say shallow urban streams and ponds have high E. coli counts because of the bird life inhabiting them, is it really Labour’s goal to get the E. coli count down to a swimmable level of a median of 130? What exactly is the point of getting water bodies that can’t be swum in, down to a swimmable standard?

What is this water royalty? We don’t know what level it is going to be set at (reported numbers are between 1c and 2c per 1000l). We don’t know how it is going to be collected. And it has little relationship to freshwater degradation. Dairy farming is associated with rises in nitrate levels in fresh water. Other forms of farming, such as viticulture aren’t linked to such rises.  Viticulture also uses a lot of water. A royalty based on water use, isn’t a polluter-pays tax.  If your concern is nitrate pollution, you would tax nitrate fertilisers. Or you’d tax cows.  From a policy perspective, taxing water use makes little sense. It isn’t targeting polluters or (directly) the problem of water degradation.

In short, based on the above response, we don’t know what Labour is going to do, how much they’re budgeting to spend, and how much they’re planning to collect by way of water royalties.

No doubt they will form a working group. As always, Labour’s policies are light on details and don’t give you any idea what they will actually do.

He summarises:

Essentially, most of the parties either explicitly or tacitly accept that the NPS-FM 2014 is the vehicle for reaching improved water quality. Given the intensity of the water debate I’m surprised the party policies outlined above showed so few points of difference.  There’s a strong emphasis on E. coli and swimmable standards, but little on other pollutants. None of the parties identified aquatic life (say, fish and invertebrates) as a target or metric for their policies.

Some of the differences are difficult to pin down. A National policy of 90% swimmable by 2040, versus a Labour policy of an unspecified (all?) swimmable over approximately 25 years, versus a Green of all water bodies safe to swim in (no date given) does not generate many degrees of separation.  

So National is the only party with a specific timeframe and standard.

One major point of difference is water royalties or levies.  The case for charging water royalties, or fees, or taxes, isn’t convincing. It’s not a “Polluter’s Pay” tax. The impact of it on water degradation is thus very fuzzy.  If it was about pollution you’d be charging a levy on nitrate fertiliser or the like.  It’s just the wrong thing to be taxing. And we return to that pesky problem that our water pollution has a big contribution from non-point sources. It’s really hard to implement “polluter-pays” when we don’t know who the polluters are, how much pollution they generate, and when they generated it.

That’s never stopped Labour taxing something though!

One of the major sources of freshwater pollution is emissions from urban households.  Rather than such households responsible for, or funding water improvements, we see proposals to fund these from rural sources (e.g. the water royalty).  This subsidies some polluting households (i.e. urban) to stop degrading water, by taxing other households (i.e. rural). It’s a mess.

Yep Labour is going to tax generally lower income rural households to subsidise urban polluters!

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