Monday, May 08, 2006

Mark Peart: It's too easy to take water for granted

Until just over a year ago the sum total of my knowledge about water allocation could neatly and squarely occupy the space on the back of a postage stamp.

Then, kicking and screaming and struggling, I was assigned to cover the Waitaki catchment water allocation process. I thought it would be a nine-day wonder and I could move onto other things.

It wasn't and I didn't. Now, you could fit what I know about the mechanics of water allocation on to the back of two postage stamps.

However, you could also now assemble what I've learned about the politics of water and water allocation on the back of several sheets of postage stamps, or maybe even incorporate it into a small book.

Water allocation is an undeniably fraught, complex, and highly politicised science, as the members of the Government-appointed Waitaki catchment water allocation board learned only too well last year.

Competing and conflicting interests abound; farmers, irrigators, electricity companies, recreational users, conservationists, everyone wants their share. Inevitably there will be winners and losers.

It's human nature to take fresh, clean, water for granted. We turn on the tap and out flows the elixir of life, unsullied and unadulterated (hopefully).

It's like flicking on a light switch. It isn't until the bulb blows, or the fuse, that we appreciate just how fragile our existence is without essential utilities.

In a country like New Zealand dominated by alpine regions, water supplies appear to be limitless. Yet they are not.

It is unsurprising then that dairy farmers have been the most vocal in their reaction to the Government's recently released blueprint for sustainable water management.

The Sustainable Water Programme of Action is taking a wide-ranging look at water management, including studying alternatives to first-in-first-served water allocation mechanisms and how the transfer of consents to use water can be improved.

Farmers have a history of claiming first dibs on the use of freshwater resources. They would argue their economic livelihood, and through agricultural exports a large part of the nation's livelihood, depends on it.

The leader of the Dairy Environment Review Group, Jon Penno, said last month: "A whole lot of farmers ... don't want or need further regulations or rules that just roll out and make farming less viable."

That's probably right. But in this wider debate about sustainability, should farmers have the dominant say and the overriding influence?

Water is one of those resources which no one, not even the Crown, should claim ownership of. Sure, the Crown has de facto responsibilities for its prudent management and stewardship. But it doesn't own it.

Penno said the Government's programme and a strategy released recently by his group for protecting the environment had many points of agreement. Dairying clearly needed to use water "in a way that the wider community believes is acceptable".

The wider community didn't consider it acceptable when dairy giant Fonterra, a farmer-owned co-operative, was found to be polluting the Clutha River near its Stirling cheese factory in south Otago this year. The Otago Regional Council and Fonterra now have a revised agreement to remedy the problems at Stirling. And so they should. It took an awful lot of bad press nationwide to make Fonterra face up to its responsibilities.

The Government, for its part, needs to ensure it doesn't start brandishing the big regulatory stick too vigorously.

Hopefully common sense will prevail and the parties can agree without a vital resource being used as a political football.

From now on, I will bow to the kitchen sink in awed reverence every time I go to fill my glass with filtered water and contemplate the challenge we face not to squander and waste it.

* Mark Peart is a Dunedin-based freelance writer.

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