Developments in the Waikato Regional Council freshwater strategy

Waikato Regional Council freshwater strategy hopes to address water allocation and quality issues facing the Waikato region

In hope to tackle significant pressures on availability and quality for the water in this region, councillors signed off the new Waikato Regional Council freshwater strategy.

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Iwi and regional stakeholders developed the strategy after extensive consultation which took a long-term view of the issues.

The new strategy suggests better water managing through a range of new policy tools and instruments.

Chairman Alan Livingston says the strategy will now be available during the development of the 2018-28 long term plan. He foresees a strong focus on on water allocation and quality issues as the core part of their work.

This discussion is separate from the Healthy Rivers Wai Ora Plan Change 1 proposal which is aimed at restoring and protecting only Waikato and Waipa rivers, whereas the Waikato Regional Council freshwater strategy is long term plan relating to the entire region.

The amount of water left in waterways and its quality are inextricably linked as less flow meaning a lower ability to safely assimilate contaminants such as nutrients, sediment and bacteria and this is something the new freshwater strategy recognises.

 Problems addressed

 Examples of problems the strategy is designed to address:

  • Water pressures in certain areas need to be redistributed. Water take allocation limits are being hit in places more than others. For example, major rivers – the Waikato and the Piako – are now effectively classed as fully allocated for water take purposes. Applications for surface water from the Waikato catchment now exceed what’s available during the summer months of November to April. The Piako is actually over-allocated.
  • At many freshwater sites around the region bacteria levels exceed safe swimming standards.

Strategy solutions

Using volume-based pricing for water takes are one of the strategy suggestions. This is particularly relevant to current issues such as water bottling and managing demand for water generally.

Alan says that if they provided suitable pricing tools this could provide an incentive for more efficient and conservative use of resources which in turn will help them better manage demand and water quality.

He also says that this could help address community concerns that the value of water is not being fully appreciated. He wants the strategy to be a catalyst for further change at a regional level on water use and quality fonts, and a debate needs to take place on what is the best way to incentivise change.

The Waikato economy is demanding more than its freshwater resource can sustain, says a report to the council, calling for a way to better understand limits to prevent environmental and economic harm, and social and cultural impacts such as a loss of pride in and connection to waterways.

The regional council regulations are the only enforcement that manages the allocation and quality of freshwater in the Waikato.

Back then, these regulations were based on old legislation and over this time water was plentiful and over-allocation of water wasn’t an issue. In relation to council processing and monitoring activities, water take consent charges are relatively low-level.

Blair Dickie, the strategy’s lead author, council principal strategic advisor, says to improve the use of water and to protect our region, it would require a better mix of incentives, rules and education.

“Volume-based pricing and a system where polluters bear a greater financial responsibility towards mitigating their impacts could help avoid the current situation when the general public can effectively end up subsiding those who are adversely contributing to water quality and scarcity issues.”

“Harvesting” and storing water at times of the year where it is plentiful, would be promoted by the implementation of pricing. This will encourage higher value land uses and stimulated land use changes of benefit to the environment.

Freshwater management units (FMUs), are suggested by Blair as the volume-based pricing for taking water. FMU’s are catchment areas sharing a common set of issues and influences.

Another potential pricing tool that will channel back into managing and improving the health of catchments where water is taken from is water take volume-based consent charges or local “taxes.” Another option was a market for the trading of water use permits.

Blair says new management tools need to be supported by better information on freshwater availability and contamination across the geographically diverse Waikato region.

He stresses that the suggested changes are only options. There would need to be a new legislation to fully enable volume-based pricing of water. Blair would at least like the possibility of using these tools in the future if needed.

Ten years is an optimistic scope of the time it could take to facilitate the changes suggested, and the process involving multiple stakeholders was the best way to identify the right management options going forward.

The council’s ‘Let’s Talk Water’ discussion was a big helper in the driving and development of the strategy. Alan thanked iwi and stakeholders who had contributed to this.    

Blair finishes by saying that the council will need to look at what investment it will make in facilitating the strategy’s suggested way forward in the 2018-28 long term plan development process. The strategy encourages all parties to have their say in the long term plan’s development.

Photography: Michael Runkel | robertharding | Getty Images

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