Water fee plan raised

Businesses and possibly individuals who use coastal water space for commercial purposes may have to pay a fee to help finance an environmental monitoring programme.

The Marlborough District Council's environment committee has approved a coastal monitoring strategy for Marlborough, costing about $400,000 a year. Initially this money will come from existing budgets, but council staff have suggested funding the work from coastal occupancy charges in the medium to longer term.

These charges could be levied on commercial users of water space such as companies farming shellfish and fish in the Marlborough Sounds.

The Marine Farming Association says it is relaxed about the idea as long as everyone who occupies water space is charged.

Council environmental science and monitoring manager Alan Johnson said the Marlborough Sounds was under increasing pressure from development, on land and water, and from recreational users.

Limited information about the marine environment restricted council decision-making, he said.

Initially, budgets would be reprioritised to pay for a coastal monitoring strategy, but in the long run they would need more funding in the annual plan process. The council could look at other mechanisms for funding, such as coastal occupancy charges, Mr Johnson said.

Marine Farming Association executive officer Graeme Coates said his members were not concerned about the possibility of the charges.

Mayor Alistair Sowman had raised the idea with the association at its annual meeting on Friday, he said.

"Our view is that as long as they are fair and transparent, and all users of the coastal marine zone are included - not just farms - it is not a problem for us."

He included all activities that needed a permit in the coastal marine zone, which would include owners of swing moorings and jetties.

Other users, including the council's own companies, such as Port Marlborough, and Department of Conservation campgrounds, affected the marine environment as well and needed to be considered, he said.

"It's easy to say there should be coastal occupancy charges, but when you sit down, it gets much harder."

The council would need to be clear what the charges were for, too.

Legal precedent was that council couldn't charge "marine rates", he said.

Association members paid $1.2 million a year on monitoring the Sounds environment, he said.

They had a huge amount of information on the environment, particularly on water quality, which had not been shared with the council but should be.

"We know more about what's happening in the Sounds than the council does."

However, Mr Coates said the association's members - mainly mussel farmers - were focused on what affected their business of growing and harvesting shellfish that was safe for human consumption.

NZ King Salmon chief executive Grant Rosewarne could not be contacted yesterday but has said previously the company is happy to pay a coastal marine charge if charges were on "an equitable basis across all marine farming and marine utilisation, not just applicable to one company".

At the environment committee meeting on Thursday, chairman Peter Jerram said the council would have to talk with the aquaculture industry.

Councillor Jessica Bagge said coastal occupancy charges were "long overdue".

Mr Sowman said a coastal monitoring strategy was "absolutely timely".

"At times, we struggle with some decision-making processes because we don't have the information needed."

The Marlborough Express