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The BulletinApril 14, 2023

Three Waters gets put out of its misery

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The name is gone, but how much have the government’s much-maligned water reforms really changed, asks Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

So farewell then, Three Waters

By the time prime minister Chris Hipkins stepped up to the mic yesterday morning, word was already out. As revealed earlier this week by BusinessDesk and others, Three Waters has gone to the big policy bonfire in the sky. In its place is Affordable Water Reform – a rebranded Three Waters, minus the now-politically toxic name and with a few major tweaks including an increase in the number of water management “entities” involved. The original plan for just four to cover the entire country had attracted widespread criticism from the start. Now there will be 10 entities, largely drawn over regional council boundaries, giving local communities more control over their own water – but also increasing the overall cost to the ratepayer. Still, the government says the reforms will bring substantial savings compared to doing nothing at all: between $2800 and $5400 on average per household, per year by 2054.

Mayors split on new plan

The government is also de-emphasising “co-governance” as part of its rebrand, in the hopes of ameliorating public opposition to the reforms. But councils are the main target audience for the announcement, writes Stuff’s Thomas Manch. Some of them still aren’t convinced. Mayor Nigel Bowen tells the Timaru Herald the changes are once again “a case of Wellington thinking it knows what’s best for South Canterbury” while Mackenzie District mayor Anne Munro says the real issues are “assets being expropriated without compensation, and no real property rights over these assets”. Those voicing support include Local Government New Zealand and Ngāi Tahu which says while it preferred the previous plan, the new one is still “a significant improvement on the pre-reform status quo”. Another group no doubt cheering the change: all the long-suffering journalists (like yours truly) who can finally stop caring whether Three Waters should be capitalised or not.

Meanwhile, the water crisis continues 

They might differ on policy specifics, but nearly everyone agrees that water reform is desperately needed. The crisis was highlighted this week by the release of Our Freshwater 2023, a damning report on the state of our waterways from the environment ministry and Stats NZ. It found that 46% of all our lakes larger than 1 hectare are in poor or very poor health, while 45% of rivers are unswimmable. According to Greenpeace, the government’s water reforms are missing a crucial step by failing to regulate the dairying and fertiliser industries – “the industries that are polluting drinking water in the first place”. But farmers say they’re doing their best. “We all want the same thing,” Federated Farmers’ Colin Hurst tells Stuff. “Farmers are part of the community as well, and we want good, clean water quality as well. It’s not going to happen overnight.” It’s an uphill battle given the explosion in dairying over recent decades. In Canterbury, for example, the dairy cattle herd increased by a staggering 973% between 1990 and 2019, from 113,000 to 1.2 million animals.

Water – and the lack of it – an international concern

New Zealand is far from the only country confronting hard choices on water usage. While aging infrastructure, safe drinking water, and better wastewater and stormwater services are the urgent needs driving reform here, in the western US it’s the water supply itself that’s at risk. With the Colorado River Basin experiencing a 23-year drought, its worst in 1,200 years, the states that rely on the river are being threatened with massive government-mandated cuts to their water supply. It’s hard to overstate the impact on cities like Las Vegas, which gets 90% of its water from the river and whose residents are now facing huge and permanent changes to their way of life.

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