Whether to tax farmers and orchardists for using water has been a highly-charged issue this election - but a new survey suggests most Kiwis, both town and country, back the idea.

Findings from Water New Zealand's survey, released at the industry group's conference this morning, showed 77 per cent of the 4,500 people it polled online over a month this year agreed there should be a cost when taking water from the environment for agriculture and horticulture.

Almost three in five people - 59 per cent - believed there should be a cost when taking water from the environment for all users.

But agreement was much higher, at 89 per cent, when asked whether water bottling companies should be charged for taking water from the environment.


Despite suggestions an urban-rural divide exists over the issue, the responses were
consistent across city, regional and rural regions.

"Respondents, widespread, believe that there should be a cost to take water from the environment particularly if it is for a commercial activity," the survey report authors said.

This issue has become highly debated, with the spotlight focusing on commercial users, particularly water bottlers, paying minimal charges for water abstraction.

In New Zealand, there is no charge for the physical resource of water.

Under the Resource Management Act, local councils, which have authority over water allocation, can charge only to recover the costs involved in treating, transferring, maintaining and operating water infrastructure.

The National Government's view is that no one owns water and there is no fixed cost or price allocated to the physical resource of water itself.

Despite the party criticising Labour's pledge to introduce charging in campaign attack ads, National has tasked a technical advisory group to look at possible new policy around allocation and pricing.

"Our Government is not opposed to reform, but wants any new allocation policy to be fair, consistent and workable," Environment Minister Nick Smith told this year's Environmental Defence Society conference.

Labour has announced it would go ahead and charge water bottlers and others with heavy water consumption, at per-litre rates to be determined in a water summit after the election.

The royalties would be distributed to regional councils to fund improving the quality of rivers and streams, after some of the royalties had been paid to Maoridom to meet Treaty settlements.

The Greens and New Zealand First would also make water bottlers pay, and the Maori Party would put an interim ban on exports by foreign companies until Maori rights and interests in water had been addressed.

ACT and The Opportunities Party advocate a cap and trade systems for commercial water use.

Official figures based on the 2012 Census show there are 58,071 farms in New Zealand and 10,500 have consent for irrigation, while lobby group Irrigation New Zealand estimates the number of irrigated farms is now at 11,000.

People also worried about dirty rivers

Almost three in every four people were concerned about poor water quality in rivers and lakes. Photo / File
Almost three in every four people were concerned about poor water quality in rivers and lakes. Photo / File

Meanwhile, respondents to the survey were also generally worried about poor water quality in our rivers and lakes.

Almost three in every four people, or 73 per cent, were concerned about poor water quality, 69 per cent of people believed councils should invest more to improve stormwater quality and 43 per cent would even pay more to improve waterways.

Sixty-three per cent of respondents stated that floating plastics were the pollutants in their local area that concerned them the most, followed by sewage overflows (53 per cent).

"This is a strong message to councils that the public supports a push for cleaner waterways and investing more to address the effects of pollutants," the report authors said.

READ MORE: Election policy series: the battle for our rivers and lakes

"There are strategies already in place, including new infrastructure, however it is clear that there is plenty more work to be done."

Only 36 per cent of respondents agreed local and national governments kept them informed of water issues and only 36 per cent agreed that they consider water supply as part of city planning and urban growth.

There was also generally disagreement or uncertainty that local and national government ensure resilient water supplies for earthquakes and other natural hazards, invest appropriately to manage flooding, work together to make the right decisions for New Zealand's water resources and adequately plan for future water needs.

However, two thirds of respondents agreed that water suppliers were efficiently managed, and more respondents agreed than disagreed that drinking water providers proactively improved the service they offer and that they adequately maintain water supplies and assets.

There was significant concern about water shortage in New Zealand, both on a whole-of-country scale and a local scale.

"The availability of water is important to New Zealanders and the vast majority are concerned about the sustainability of supply, regardless of whether they live in a rural or urban environment," the report authors said.

Over four in five respondents (85 per cent) were somewhat to very concerned regarding climate change impacts, with 85 per cent somewhat to very concerned for flooding and 84 per cent somewhat to very concerned about drought.

Eighty-six per cent of respondents are also somewhat to very concerned about population growth.

"These factors will impact the quality and quantity of drinking water," the authors said.

"Almost nine out of 10 people are somewhat to very concerned about drinking water quality and 87 per cent are somewhat to very concerned about water shortages in New Zealand.

"This is an opportunity for water suppliers to take the lead in regards to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

"Trends in the global water industry have seen water suppliers targeting carbon neutrality by 2030 and strategies for future planning."

Freshwater scientist: results not surprising

Massey University freshwater ecologist Professor Russell Death wasn't surprised by the survey findings.

Events such as last August's campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North had highlighted the health risks associated with drinking water supply management in some parts of New Zealand.

"Similarly, publicity over the poor state of our waterways, including as one of the major issues in the current election, has made a large number of people aware of the issues," Death said.

It was a state of affairs that many people, not surprisingly, were particularly unhappy with, Death said.

"It seems only some politicians and a few farmers still do not seem to realise just how bad many rivers in New Zealand now are.

"It is amazing to see that it is now an election issue and that so many people are aware of the problems.

"But it is also sad that the state of our waterways, in clean green New Zealand, has now got so bad that it has become such a controversial topic of debate.

"I think this survey simply reflects that people in both town and country are very disappointed that authorities have not put in place enough measures to protect our precious water resources - perhaps because they think we have an unlimited supply?"