From the earliest settlements onwards, rivers and natural waterways have played a dominant part in the lives of the people of this country.
Whether it be as a food source, a transport route, a scenic attraction, a source of hydro-electricity, or, sadly, a means of drainage, rivers have always been at the heart of the lives of many New Zealand communities.
And, since the late nineteenth century, their management has been an important issue for local government, and often a source of tension with central government and competing local interests.
Over recent years there has been mounting concern that activities such as dairy intensification have led to a more rapid than acceptable decline in water quality standards, leaving some to question the accuracy of the long-made claim that our fresh waterways are amongst the world’s most pristine.
Mounting public concern and agitation led to the release of the Essential Freshwater package by central government in September 2019. Its worthy ambition, which the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders share, is to restore major fresh waterways to a swimmable standard.
However, despite that support, the goal will be difficult to achieve, at least in the short term, for a couple of reasons.
First, is the question of who pays. Central government has become adept over many years at making grandiose commitments and then imposing an unreasonable amount of, if not all, the costs on regional and local government.
Cleaning up the nation’s waterways, as the Essential Freshwater package proposes, will be costly, and will need strong fiscal backing from central government if it is to be successful. The temptation to load a fair amount of this on local and regional government will be strong, as usual, but given the national interest in fresh waterways, it is arguably more a central government responsibility.
A second reason why achieving the swimmable water quality standard will be challenging is that not every affected community starts from the same point, nor has the same capacity to respond.
If communities start to feel left out or behind in this process, their support for what is being attempted could quickly evaporate. Again, clear and responsive leadership from central government will be required.
The elusive sense of partnership so many like to claim between central and regional government will need to come to the fore here if overall progress is to be made.
Adding to the urgency of improving freshwater quality standards in major waterways is the state of water reticulation services in many communities, large and small, up and down the country, as the Havelock North inquiry has highlighted.
Replacing century-old pipes and distribution systems is a major priority, with particular public health pressures, placing its urgency on an arguably even higher list than swimmable water standards for rivers.
The cost will be well beyond many communities. Yet we simply cannot afford to wait for another incident like Havelock North to occur before action is taken.
In 2016-17, I argued unsuccessfully as Associate Health Minister for an extension of the last Labour-led government’s 10-year scheme to assist small local authorities to upgrade water and sewerage systems, but in advice to the Minister of Finance Treasury this idea was dismissed as unnecessary and low priority and, so, did not make it through the Budget round.
Against that general backdrop, the current debate about where central government should invest more heavily in infrastructure becomes sharply focused.
New Zealanders have been making it clear to central and local government politicians for many years now that they are concerned that water quality standards be lifted. They clearly want to be able to see our rivers as pristine once more, and to swim in them again, the way so many remember.
And as the controversy that has arisen in some centres has shown, New Zealanders also expect their reticulated drinking water to be of the highest natural standard.
Moreover, there is broad public consensus on these objectives, and a certain irritability that there even be any debate about how to achieve them. There is an underlying expectation that these goals have to be met.
This Government, already struggling from a mounting perception that it is very free with the big ideas, but all at sea when it comes to implementing them, or making them work, would gain itself considerable kudos were it to dedicate a substantial portion of its mounting surplus to the full implementation of the Essential Freshwater package, and the upgrading of drinking and wastewater systems across the country.
Hon Peter Dunne was previously an MP for over 33 years; a Minister for 14 years in both Labour and National-led governments (Minister of Internal Affairs; Associate Minister of Health, Associate Minister of Conservation in the previous government) and who now comments regularly on public affairs.
Photo: Jordan Whitt
This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of Local Government Magazine.