Bruce Bisset: Money weighs heavy on water

By Bruce Bisset

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Amidst the furore over iwi rights, fracking threatening aquifers, sales of hydro stations and a ravening drought, it's easy to overlook that the biggest change for decades is about to impact the way fresh water is allocated and controlled.

Everyone should be aware the Resource Management Act is undergoing the second phase of ACT-promoted gutting aimed at allowing medium to large developments to ignore the environment, but parallel to that process is another which takes a similar "money talks" approach to water.

On the face of it, the fresh water reform proposal is all about better management and improved quality - and these things may result - but like the RMA changes at core it is plain economic factors are going to outweigh any other consideration.

The lead document talks about moving towards "higher value uses" and "allocating for activities that generate the highest overall benefit". Translation: what potentially makes the most bucks.

Dare I suggest, dairy and fracking for oil might top the list - while traditional cropping, beef, and sheep farming will probably fall off it.

Other warning flags include "pricing tools" being used as a means to "efficiency", with a "market-based" approach to the issuance and trading of permits. In short, privatisation of water rights with allocations going to the highest bidder.

And we know who many of those winning bidders will be, don't we? Yep; dairy and oil.

Don't get me wrong; there's quite a lot to like in general terms about the management regime, such as requiring councils to know exactly who takes or discharges what when - something most sadly can only guess at now.

And though it's bereft of detail, the plan envisages setting "national bottom line" take and discharge limits when assessing a range of "attributes" (such as sediment, bacteria, flows) in regard to any given activity in order to ensure whatever comes out or goes in to a stream or lake allows the water body to achieve a minimum "state" for a set of "values" (such as swimming, fishing, irrigation).

The language of bureaucracy may be opaque, but the intent of improving quality and available quantity is laudable and appears based on best-practice principles.

Problem is it's tacked together with a trainload of neo-liberal ideology that will lock water up as a market-driven commodity while likely extending permits to a minimum 20-year term - and some could have more than the present 35-year maximum.

Attaching a monetary value to water may be "fairer" and help restrain demand, but promoting "higher" end use as a goal suggests price will become the only yardstick of who gets to share it. And that is simply not tenable.

Moreover the touchy-feely "collaborative planning option" the regime proposes as an "alternative" to (read, subversion of) the RMA is one of those so-called "community" processes that looks great on the outside but delivers cold comfort at crunch time. Remember the Ocean Beach "charettes"? That's the model.

One which, practised by a council ruled by vested interests, will effectively disempower the community - the opposite of what is touted - because on the back of such a "collaborative" process the reform envisages doing away with most rights of appeal.

What's most alarming is the proposal baldly signals profiteering from our most precious resource as if that were automatically acceptable.

It isn't, and the Nats need to be told so. The crass monetarist perception that people care less about the environment than they did 30 years ago needs to be buried, fast.

You have until April 8 to get a submission in - while the deadline for the castration of the RMA itself is April 2. Both will be discussed at a meeting in the Opera House, Hastings, on Tuesday.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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