Two recent events ought to have injected some urgency into the quest for cleaner, fairer and better use of New Zealand's most valuable resource, water. One is the unusually low rainfall this summer, causing a drought that has affected farms everywhere. The other was the Supreme Court ruling two weeks ago that allowed the Mighty River Power share issue to go ahead on affidavits from the Government that Maori interests in freshwater were being recognised in other forums.

But if either event spurred the Government to make the decisions it announced last weekend, the urgency went no further. The proposals outlined by ministers for the environment and primary industries are not much of an advance on the reports of the Land and Water Forum, an exercise applauded for including all "stakeholders" in a discussion of new ways to maintain water quality and allocate its use.

The discussion has been going on for four years, has produced three voluminous reports, agreed in the broadest possible terms about the values that should guide water management - and left all the hard issues unresolved. So, now, has the Government.

It has decided to put a new "collaborative planning process" for water in the Resource Management Act this year. The bill will give iwi the right to offer advice and make recommendations that councils must consider. That will probably not satisfy iwi aspirations to shared decision-making for water flowing through their ancestral territory.


Councils will be required to account for all "takes" of water from rivers and lakes, whether authorised or not, account for all contaminants and adopt a method of estimating discharges. National guidelines will be laid down for water quality, allocation limits, permits, management and much else. In other words, the hard work is still to be done.

And since it is to be done with more of the collaborative planning process, the hard decisions will probably continue to be lost in compromise between the conflicting interests of farm irrigation, hydro power, recreational fishing and boating, iwi, environmental improvement and urban consumption.

Most of these "stakeholders" know water is not well managed. Some dry areas have allocated more permits than their annual rainfall can sustain; in other places permit-holders seldom take their full allocation, and it is just as well.

Many of the problems could be solved by allowing a trade in permits which would ensure water rights were bought by those who could use the water for best value.

The market could be regulated by standards of water quality and discharge controls set by regional councils. But the Government calls this idea "complex" and has relegated it to a "longer-term issue".

It admits there are few incentives for using water efficiently, but a market price is only one of the ways it believes efficiency could be improved. The others are "national efficiency standards, increased water metering and ensuring applicants only apply for the fresh water they need ..."

None of the others would put a useful price on the resource. They would largely leave it in the hands of historic permit holders who in many cases have rights to more than they need, or take, and staunchly oppose new applications for permits.

If councils can operate a better system of accounting for actual draw-off, the Government's proposals might help put water to wider and more efficient uses but such a system has yet to be devised. Four years of talk has not produced a practical scheme.