Sir Geoffrey Palmer once described New Zealand as a pluvial country. The former law professor and prime minister meant it rained a lot. In parts of the country it does. But outside of Fiordland and the West Coast, much of New Zealand endures long periods with little or no rain, though tropical depressions often lash the north of the country just as holidaymakers pitch their tents (as we were once again reminded these past few days).

Despite the weekend's deluge in the north, summer is barely a month old and already some regions are running low on drinking water. Supplies for farm animals and crops are being rationed.

READ MORE: New Year rain a drop in bucket for parched farms

Trucks are delivering water to parched vineyards in Marlborough. As river levels dip in the hottest months, water quality falls. Warning signs beside freshwater lagoons at Piha, Karekare and Bethells because of overloaded septic tanks are a familiar summer sight. Toxic algae has been detected at 15 freshwater sites in Canterbury. North of Christchurch, people who draw water from rural supplies with shallow intakes must permanently boil water used for drinking, oral hygiene and food preparation.


The pattern is repeated most years. In all likelihood, the task of ensuring towns and cities - and the countryside - have access to clean and sufficient water, as well as water for recreation, is certain to become a pressing issue. It begs questions whether communities are adequately prepared to cope with water supply stresses, and whether agencies which manage fresh water are on top of their game.

The signs are not positive. Six years ago, the Government asked the Land and Water Forum to create a plan for freshwater management. The forum, which draws together 67 organisations and is meant to work collaboratively, has made dozens of recommendations in a series of reports on how best to manage water. In its fourth and latest document, issued in November, the forum pleaded for action, warning that without some concrete steps water quality would continue to deteriorate, and the country would further squander what the forum rightly calls a national treasure and strategic asset. Forum chairman Alastair Bisley delivered a blunt message to Environment Minister Nick Smith and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy, reminding them that most of the previous 153 recommendations continued to gather dust.

Mr Bisley pointedly noted that the forum's very first recommendation in its new report was to implement all the others "and do that as soon as possible". He cautioned that without some response, the forum's consensus was unlikely to last.

New Zealand has immense water resources but much of it is in the wrong place. In some regions, limits to water use are approaching, crimped by supply or quality. All New Zealanders expect reliable access to clean water. The economy rests on its assured supply. As many as 200,000 jobs - in dairying, horticulture and tourism - directly depend on water.

The Government has been handed all it needs to make their livelihoods secure and protect a renewable asset. It ought to act soon.