A new Waikato Regional Council freshwater strategy designed to tackle significant pressures on water availability and quality in the region has been signed off by councillors.
The strategy - developed after extensive consultation with iwi and regional stakeholders - takes a long-term view of the issues and suggests a range of new policy tools and instruments to better manage water.
"The strategy will now be available during the development of our 2018-28 long term plan which will see us having a continuing strong focus on water allocation and quality issues, a core part of our work," said chairman Alan Livingston.
The discussion on the long term plan relates to the entire region and is separate from the current Healthy Rivers Wai Ora Plan Change 1 proposal which is aimed at restoring and protecting the Waikato and Waipa rivers.
The new freshwater strategy recognises the amount of water left in waterways and its quality are inextricably linked as less flow means a lower ability to safely assimilate contaminants such as nutrients, sediment and bacteria.
Examples of problems the strategy is designed to address include:
• Water take allocation limits are being hit in places.
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. But there's less pressure in other areas.
• Bacteria levels exceed safe swimming standards at many freshwater sites around the region.
The strategy's suggestions include potentially using volume-based pricing for water takes, particularly relevant to current issues such as water bottling and managing demand for water generally.
"If we are provided with suitable pricing tools - whatever their final shape - they could help us better manage demand and water quality by providing an incentive for more efficient and conservative use of resources. It could also help address community concerns that the value of water is not fully appreciated," said Mr Livingston.
"This strategy provides an integrated foundation to develop a new set of water management tools. We want it to be a catalyst for further change at a regional level on the water use and quality fronts, and we need to debate what the best way is to incentivise change."
A report to the council said it appeared the Waikato economy is demanding more than its freshwater resource can sustain and there is a need to better understand what limits existed, and where, to prevent environmental and economic harm, as well as social and cultural impacts such as a loss of pride in and connection to waterways.
Currently, managing the allocation and quality of freshwater in the Waikato largely relies on regulations enforced by the regional council. Those regulations are based on old legislation from a time when water was more plentiful and over-allocation of water wasn't an issue.
Water take consent charges are relatively low-level, relating to council processing and monitoring activities.
The strategy's lead author, council principal strategic advisor Blair Dickie, said a better mix of incentives, rules and education would be more effective in improving the way water is used and protected in our region.
"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."
Pricing could be implemented in a way that promoted the "harvesting" and storage of water at times of the year when it is plentiful, encouraged higher value land uses and stimulated land use changes of benefit to the environment.
Mr Dickie suggested any volume-based pricing for taking water and using it should be done on the basis of so-called freshwater management units (FMUs), which are catchment areas sharing a common set of issues and influences.
He stressed the suggested changes were options only that would need to be carefully considered.
"There would also need to be new legislation to fully enable volume-based pricing of water but we would at least like the opportunity in future to use such tools if appropriate." "Even on an optimistic timetable it could take up to ten years to facilitate the changes suggested and it was believed the right management options going forward were best identified by a process involving multiple stakeholders," he added.
Mr Livingston thanked iwi and stakeholders who had contributed to the council's "Let's Talk Water" discussion that helped drive the strategy's development.
"During the upcoming 2018-28 long term plan development process the council will need to look at what investment it makes in facilitating the strategy's suggested way forward. We encourage all parties to have their say on the long term plan's development."