Dr Morgan Williams’ “Reflections on Water…”

Wed, 25 Oct 2017

Former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment for ten years, Dr Morgan Williams is the chair of the Cawthron Foundation and the World Wide Fund for Nature in New Zealand. He holds several other trustee and advisory positions for various environment-focused organisations and sits on Waimea Water’s Community Water Solutions Advisory Group.

Five years ago, my wife and I came to Nelson (ex Canterbury via Wellington) for the ‘good life’. Like most communities, there are protracted debates on major issues – particularly where matters of fairness, personal cost, perception of need and many potential solutions are present. An example is the long running debate about how the Waimea plains and surrounding urban areas, including Nelson City, continue to have secure water supplies in the face of growing demand and greater variability in rainfall.

A safe reliable supply of fresh water is the most critical of humanity’s basic needs – the other two being shelter and food. This hierarchy of needs has long been recognised, hence the concentration of human settlements near good water supplies that in turn ensure reliable food production.

In 2000, as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, I led a major study on New Zealand urban water systems published under the quirky title: Ageing pipes and murky waters: Urban water system issues for the 21st century.

In the preface I concluded: “Further incremental tinkering with the current systems, without going back to first principles of community water and wastewater needs relevant to the 21st century, will simply mean the necessary changes will be harder to achieve and cost more at some time in the future. It is also likely that they will be crisis driven which is never a good substrate for rational strategic planning and cost-effective investment”.

Through the study, I observed that water supply, urban or rural, is primarily a local government or private responsibility – reinforced by the remarkable fact that we have no Minister of Water within central government despite having ministers for a vast array of other areas including racing! This ‘framing’ of water provision as a local matter for local funding has, however, attracted central government’s funding for potable water supply and waste treatment systems in smaller communities but the major investments have been in hydro-electricity dams and irrigation schemes.

Is this the way to effectively manage the resource that is top of our three most fundamental needs? It did not appear to be when I conducted the urban water study in 2000 – and it certainly does not 17 years later when the risks to water security are ever more obvious.

With regard to the current Waimea Community Dam debate, the responsibility falls on Tasman District Council under current law (RMA and the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management) to maintain river water quality, minimum flows and to provide safe water to its ratepayers.

In simple terms the current proposal to build an augmentation dam in the Lee Valley is the means to meet several important needs – to recharge aquifers (the region’s natural, low cost storage system) and thus improve security of rural/irrigation and urban supply – while at the same time maintaining the ecological health of the delivery system (Waimea River).

From a scientific and economic perspective, there is good evidence supporting an ‘aquifer recharge’ solution to meet community needs. It sustains the health of a large aquifer system, needs no piping to do so, maintains river health in the process of delivering the water and continues to use all the wells and current extraction systems.

This augmentation will effectively mitigate increasingly variable summer rainfall as our climate continues to change and will reduce the risk of major water restrictions to households and businesses. Unfortunately, the means (a storage dam) to achieve what’s needed (aquifer recharge) has become the lightning rod for debates.

The urgent need for the water has been sidelined in arguments about the nature of water risks in the region, perceptions of fairness and affordability, whether a source of funding is a subsidy (or not), role of central government, perceptions of regional population growth and the future of agriculture and horticulture in the region. To move into solution mode, we must focus on fundamentals such as ensuring we’re using nature’s infrastructure in the right way and optimising the ecological benefits.

Here are some suggestions on topics that may assist us to resolve our collective difference on our region’s water future:

  • the level of public good investment for central government in water infrastructure, versus its input into areas like roading, conservation and community health
  • the value of water and how it should be priced
  • the expected minimum design life of the proposed dam and ultimate return on capital
  • TDC’s current spend on other major capital works projects in the region
  • the actual change to individual’s rates payments compared with other things rates are paying for.

When considering any of the above, it’s vital to remember that we all need a secure water supply.

Dr Morgan Williams

Former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment