by Tony Orman
New Zealand first settlers sought to escape the UK’s feudal system where wealth is often the key to access to natural resources and the outdoors.
New Zealand was set up as an egalitarian society of equal opportunity for all. This ethos was written into laws pertaining to fishing and hunting where selling trout fishing or game bed shooting rights is prohibited.
Unfortunately and alarmingly this law enshrined principle has been eroded under free market doctrine paramount since 1984 and the advent of “Rogernomics”. For example commercial pheasant preserves openly sell shooting rights and Fish and Game NZ allowed it to happen. Yet the law (Sec 23, Wildlife Act) says selling shooting rights is prohibited.
Nevertheless the concept of public ownership of the “commons” is part of the heritage laid down by those first European settlers.
Rivers in the broadest sense – whether above ground or underground (aquifers) – are an integral part of the “commons”,i.e. a public resource.
Water is the Public’s
The public has every right to expect public servants from departments to MPs, cabinet ministers and prime ministers to ensure the well-being and health of rivers and the overall water resource. It was disingenuous for then prime minister John Key in 2016 to deny public ownership by saying “water belongs to nobody.”
It is ignorant of the heritage of the commons and irresponsible for National’s Minister for the Environment Nick Smith in 2016 to say restoring rivers to at least a ‘swimmable” standard was ‘impractical’ and ‘unachievable’.
(1) Rivers should be at least “swimmable” but preferably “healthy” based on aquatic invertebrate populations. In short healthy ecosystems.
(2) There should be no room for weak compromises such as in proposed “freshwater management units”. Water quality must be managed on a watershed and aquifer basis, not a piece-meal approach.
(3) Water must not be tradeable, i.e. tradeable water rights. The parallel is in tradeable fish quotas (Quota Management System) where the big players inevitably and eventually buy out the smaller players. This results in the big players, usually of corporate character, dominating the resource.
From time to time politicians and bureaucrats speak glowingly of NZ’s well managed fishery under the QMS. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Commercial use of water must be charged for with payments going directly into a fund for restoration of rivers.
It must not be tradeable.
Charges must only apply to commercial extraction or use of water. Recreational (non-profit) cannot be charged.
Rivers and streams must be managed on a watershed or catchment basis. Riparian strips to exclude stock in the case of intensive dairying, are just one aspect. However, the most important factor is total watershed management with soil health and structure the key.
Land use and avoidance of monocultures is vital to restoring water quantity (flows) and quality. Strategies for large scale dairying development of a corporate nature is abhorrent especially in low rainfall areas where irrigation at the expense of aquifers and rivers becomes the driving factor. Trying to turn the Mackenzie Basin and Canterbury into gigantic dairy farming areas can only have disastrous long term consequences for the public’s water resource both on flows and quality the latter through nitrate contaminants.
This comes back to the fundamental flaw in the RMA. Under the previous town and country planning law, zoning could control land use and avoid the creation of monocultures. As a former town and country planner, I consider the RMA to be lacking vital controls on land use.
Potentially and alarmingly aggravating that deficiency has been stated intentions by past Environment and Conservation ministers to weaken the RMA’s’ standards and safeguards on the public resource of water.
There is an irony that came from the lips of Ministers of Conservation and Environment.
Siltation. Dairying has received bad press largely through Fish and Games’ single publicity focus. Surprisingly Fish and Game and the public in general ignore accelerated sedimentation of streams and rivers through monocultures of forestry. Pine trees use abnormal amounts of water in growth. Consequently rural residents will tell of streams losing water flow as a planted pine forest grows.
Pines also introduce an increasing acidic character to soils to the detriment of the soil. Then at harvesting time, wholesale clear felling causes soil, debris and log run-off.
Clearly monoculture forestry needs reining in and harvesting done in two contour spaced cuts 12 months apart.
It should be noted rivers are only part of the public’s water resource. The other unseen part is the aquifer. Deplete the aquifer and it depletes above ground flows, i.e. rivers. If there is insufficient flow in rivers, the aquifers suffer as rivers may also feed the aquifer? They are interdependent.
Finally a quote from the late J F Kennedy, US president:-
“The race between education and erosion, between wisdom and waste has not run its course–each generation must deal anew with the raiders, with the scramble to use public resources for private profit and with the tendency to prefer short run profits to long term necessities. The nation’s battle to preserve the common estate is far from won–The crisis may be quiet but it is urgent.”