Nobody owns water, right? Wrong.

While it's the current Government's default hedging mantra, we've all learned that water has huge commercial value to bottling companies.

With that newfound knowledge, the media spotlight then went on the value of free water to farmers, and the public had a lightbulb moment. Indeed, if you're unconvinced, you only need to see real dollar values applied to the trading of water on websites like Canterbury's HydroTrader, to get the picture.

Farmers will say they don't get it for free because they pay for the infrastructure. Which is when I like to mention the Government's Irrigation Acceleration Fund, which has so far seen half a billion dollars of taxpayers' money funneled towards said infrastructure, and with more to come.

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Yes, that's right. We're ALL paying for the continuation of degraded rivers due to farming, and all while the beneficiaries of this public largesse don't tend to adhere to socialist theory. Too funny.

To be fair, the ownership of water is a thorny issue. It's why successive governments have never dealt with it, and it does open a few worm cans regarding Treaty rights.

Which makes The Opportunities Party (TOP) Clear Water Action Plan look as bold as brass. And, sure, you can push an audacious agenda when you're not likely to have any real power but, their policy as it stands right now, is the best that I've seen yet on addressing the very real problems we have around water.

Why?

Because they go places no one has gone before. Even mentioning Treaty rights is a fraught business, but an essential one. Because until freshwater claims are resolved, and tradeable use rights created - as was done with fisheries - a sustainable and effective allocation regime is not possible.

And before I hear anyone howl about the race-based unfairness of that, as TOP points out, that's hypocritical. They say that we all need to admit that the system right now allows for private businesses (farms) to use permits and consents as de facto property rights, and they're not wrong.

Also, polluter pays. Yes, a simple, easy statement of pure fairness that other parties have so far been reluctant to even whisper. Because that would mean, once again, upsetting the farmers. Heaven forbid.

Here's what TOP says.
"Water catchments will be assessed for the level of nitrate and other pollutants that the community and the taxpayer will tolerate. Businesses will have their pollutant contribution to the catchment measured. Those who are above the sustainable level will pay a penalty, those below will receive payment from the penalty pool."

"Those who don't pollute will become more profitable, the profitability of those who do will fall. The choice will be clear, clean up your act or face higher costs."

I mean, imagine paying for your own pollution? You make the mess, you reap the financial profit, you pay for the environmental cost of that mess. It's not rocket science.

Yet, despite that, Labour is terribly hazy about any desire to introduce a polluter pays system. And we're all waiting on whether they want to see a transition away from irrigation intensive dairying.

Indeed, such is the haziness, that the Tourism Export Council of NZ, Fish & Game, Forest & Bird, Choose Clean Water, and Greenpeace issued a joint press release last month. They measured Labour's policy against their own ambitious and intelligent Freshwater Rescue Plan, and Labour came up wanting.

The Greens? Well, I went looking for any detailed freshwater policy but found nothing on their website. There was something about the Clean Groundwater Bill but that was all. I guess their environmental magic must take time.

National? Well, let's just say that we're all au fait with their failing water policies while in Government.

Yes, they came up with the National Policy Statement for Freshwater, which provided a (rickety) framework of sorts. Then, because of public condemnation around water quality, they "reformed" it.

Those reforms were immediately welcomed by farmers and irrigators - which tells you everything you need to know - but freshwater scientists were scathing.

Not only were they nonsensical and flawed, it was quickly apparent that Environment Minister Nick Smith had overseen the weakening of the threshold for what qualifies as the best quality waterway to swim in.

National's aims regarding dairy intensification are nothing if not transparent. Which is why they massively fund irrigation projects, turn the other way when regional councils such as Horizons refuse to implement their own regional 'One Plan', or ECan haven't enforced environmental breaches like cows standing in rivers.

In aiding and abetting freshwater degradation, they've a track record as long as the Waikato River and as wide as Lake Taupo.

If you care about the state of New Zealand's waterways, then you've got some serious thinking to do this election. Or not.

Response from Irrigation New Zealand

Rachel Stewart is wrong to say the Government's Irrigation Acceleration Fund has 'so far seen half a billion dollars of taxpayers' money funneled towards said [irrigation] infrastructure, and with more to come.'

It seems Rachel has confused two different funds, neither of which have paid out half a billion dollars, and doesn't realise major irrigation infrastructure investment by government has to be paid back by farmers with interest. It is not 'free' taxpayers money.

The fund Rachel refers to, the Irrigation Acceleration Fund, does not pay for large scale infrastructure. It pays up to 50 per cent grant funding for water management studies that investigate win-win scenarios for local communities - improving freshwater management (with a particular focus on resolving over allocation), alongside the development of water infrastructure. It has $25 million dollars available for this in the period 2015-2018.

The other fund is Crown Irrigation Investments who do provide funding for large scale infrastructure, all of which (apart from some initial scoping activity) has to be paid back by farmers with interest. To date, two investments have been made totalling $72.5m. The government has committed 'up to $400m' but this money has not been spent. We are not aware of any more funding that is 'to come'.

Finally, it is also incorrect to say ECAn 'haven't enforced environmental breaches like cows standing in rivers'. They have and continue to take enforcement action, including eight dairy farm cases between January to mid-May 2017.

To provide some context, Irrigation New Zealand has calculated what farmers and other irrigators, like horticulturalists and viticulturists, have spent on irrigation infrastructure and upgrades (to make the systems more efficient, which is good for the environment), which is $1.7 billion since 2011. Irrigators pay more not only in terms of infrastructure but also pay for water consents, permits, annual environmental monitoring undertaken by local councils, and higher rates. All of this money goes back into the public coffers. As an example, a 100 hectare irrigated sheep and beef property pays over $2,000 per annum more in rates than the equivalent dryland property.

Andrew Curtis
CEO
Irrigation New Zealand