Water, water everywhere so what's the problem?

Bottled water companies trade on the Pure New Zealand brand.

Bottled water companies trade on the Pure New Zealand brand.

OPINION: If Nick Smith thinks it's farcical for people to get upset about water then National could be in deep trouble come election time. When governments start saying "we know best" is when voters start shopping around for change.

It's not hard to see why water has become such an emotive issue. Billions of litres of water from some of the most pristine parts of New Zealand are being bottled and exported by foreign commercial interests. And, unlike land, which commands top dollars from foreign buyers, they don't have to pay us for the privilege because water is free.

Smith might not "get it" at an intellectual level why people are upset, but he should understand the emotion at a gut level. From his bully pulpit in the Beehive, however, the environment minister seems capable of seeing only rank ignorance rather than the uneasy sense among Kiwis that someone has just pulled a swiftie on us.

Where do you draw the line on user pays for water?

Where do you draw the line on user pays for water?

* Plan to export billions of litres of water
* Petition launched against West Coast water plan
* Australia looks to bag West Coast water

Prime Minister Bill English's placatory language shows he is far more attuned to the possibility of water turning into the sort of sleeper issue that can derail an election. But Smith even managed to sabotage that message by refusing to believe journalists who told him English said he was open to looking at the issue.

Whether it's rational or not, people find something abhorrent about foreign buyers being able to take our water and flog it off overseas for a big mark-up. It's a raid on one of our most precious resources. It cuts across our almost spiritual view of water as something that is held in trust for all New Zealanders, in the public good. It's profit making off our 100 per cent pure brand by foreign commercial interests. And it offends people on even the most basic level that the Government seems happy to give away something so precious for the modern-day equivalent of beads and blankets.

Is bottled water an election year sleeper issue?

Is bottled water an election year sleeper issue?

Smith has a perfectly logical response to all of these concerns. He points out that we use a million times more water for irrigation, town water supply and industry than for bottled export. New Zealand's annual freshwater resource is 500 trillion litres, of which 2 per cent, or 10 trillion litres, is extracted, he says. Bottled water makes up 0.0001 per cent of that amount and the amount taken for that purpose was actually down in 2016 from the previous year, at 8.7 million litres.

Smith's other defences are equally rational. There is – as he rightly points out – a real fairness problem with charging bottled water for export, and not charging other water users. And he is bang on about it being an odd look to charge companies providing a healthy product like water when beer makers and soft-drink manufacturers don't pay a cent either.

As for farming, it's a Pandora's box.

Nick Smith is unmoved by protests over the bottled-water controversy.

Nick Smith is unmoved by protests over the bottled-water controversy.

Last year, Ashburton District Council proposed selling a section in its business estate that came with consent to extract 40 billion litres of pure, artesian water from aquifers under the drought-prone Canterbury town. The proposal sparked outrage even though Environment Canterbury argued the average dairy farm used more.

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The consent would have allowed the new owner to take 45 litres of water per second, which is the amount needed to irrigate a 90ha dairy farm with about 321 cows, about half the average farm size. Each litre of milk takes on average 400 litres of water to produce.

The outrage over bottled water vs dairy farms is not as simple as an argument about foreign owned versus New Zealand-owned. For every foreign water-bottling company there is an overseas owned dairy farm or winery that also uses more.

Maybe they invoke different emotions because industries like wine and dairying support livelihoods on the land while bottled water mostly pumps up profit margins for corporates like Coca-Cola.

Or maybe it's just that farming and viticulture take effort and industry, while filling a bottle with free water and flogging it off for money seems almost criminally easy.

But what Smith won't say – though others might – is be careful what you wish for.

Because putting a price on water opens up a far bigger can of worms. That turns the argument into one about property and ownership rights, including those of iwi.

And if water rights are tradeable, should there be a public-good test, or should it be first come, first served? Should people be able to sell their water rights to the highest bidder, even if that prices Kiwis, or more worthy projects, out of the market? Should our water be traded on international markets? And should those who currently have water rights associated with their land use be gifted shares to a value of its equivalent worth? If not, isn't that effectively a confiscation? And how will any of this affect what households pay for water?

If National is already losing the argument over a few bottled-water plants, then a debate over who owns the water is the last thing it wants in an election year. The divisions would be just as deep as those carved by the foreshore and seabed debate, and potentially even deeper with Winston Peters stirring the nationalistic pot on foreign ownership as well.

Nick Smith is often touted as one of the biggest brains around the Cabinet table. Unfortunately, being brainy has given Smith a tin ear on issues that get voters most worked up. He thinks it means he can win every argument.

Labour thought it had right on its side over the foreshore and seabed too, but it lost that argument and even the silly ones over things like phasing out old fashioned incandescent light bulbs.

Smith should remember that before blasting the bottled-water furore as farcical and a trivial distraction.

The ballot box is where voters always get the last word.

 - Stuff

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