The rising cost of water

GO WITH THE FLOW: Mark Robinson of Gill Pumps & Irrigation checks water meter verification with  a  strap-on ultrasonic meter at an Appleby property.
GO WITH THE FLOW: Mark Robinson of Gill Pumps & Irrigation checks water meter verification with a strap-on ultrasonic meter at an Appleby property.

Water users will soon face a stricter measuring and reporting regime. It comes at a cost, which not everyone is happy about, as Peter Watson reports.

Many water consent holders face a bill of at least several thousand dollars to comply with new government regulations which take effect from November, although those with accurate water meters have been given a period of grace by the Tasman District Council.

The Measurement and Reporting of Water Takes Regulations will require those with consents to take more than 20 litres of fresh water per second to install a meter capable of storing electronic data by November 10, and one which has been verified as accurate within 5 per cent. Users must also provide weekly readings year-round to the council, and not just over the summer irrigation season as required now.

Those with consents ranging from 10l/sec to 20l/sec have until November 2014 to comply, while those taking 5-10l/sec get a further two years.

The regulations have annoyed some Tasman users, who have questioned both the need for them and the cost, which comes at a time when many growers and farmers are struggling to make money.

However, the Ministry for the Environment argues that accurate, complete and current water data is critical to establishing a management system where water is effectively allocated and efficiently used.

The ministry estimates that only a third of water allocated by resource consent is actively measured, but it expects this to rise to 92 per cent once the regulations come into force in November, and to 98 per cent by 2016.

As well as providing a check on whether users are complying with their consents, the ministry expects it will lead to improvements in areas like Canterbury, where water has been vastly over-allocated. A similar problem on the Waimea Plains has led the TDC to propose building the $42 million Lee Valley dam.

TDC compliance and investigations officer Daryl Page said that of the 1300 consent holders in the district, about 500 did not have meters, and would be required to buy one capable of electronic storage.

About 300 letters have been sent to bigger water users and those in the Moutere without meters, reminding them of the November deadline and to get in touch with an accredited service provider.

Mr Page said about 60 to 70 per cent already had meters, and they had been given until September 30 to get them verified as accurate, which would still leave them time to buy a new one if their old one failed to pass.

It was impossible to know how precise the older meters were, as the council had never monitored their accuracy, he said.

If water users didn't take any steps to comply, they would be liable for abatement notices and fines, but if they had their existing meters certified as accurate, this would be sufficient until further notice, Mr Page said.

"What we are saying is if they can be proved accurate, don't chuck away perfectly good working meters, even though it may not be pulse-capable.

"While they are still in breach of the regulations, we have some discretion as to what we enforce and what we don't, and we are using that discretion."

The council would continue to accept manual water reading returns from consent holders, although it encouraged users to buy meters with data logging and telemetry equipment so the information could be supplied directly, he said. The TDC was developing an electronic reporting and recording system.

Tim Robinson of Gill Pumps & Irrigation, an accredited meter installer and verifier, said most water consent holders were starting to get on with upgrading their systems, although many were not happy about the cost.

"They are a bit grumbly about it. They see it as an extra cost during a recession. Some have three or four meters and they have only been in for a few years."

While most had a meter, only about 5 per cent were of the type required under the new regulations, he said. It would cost growers between $1000 and $5000 to buy one of five permitted models.

Most were opting for the cheaper meters, with few buying the dearer type that recorded and transferred data directly to the council, although these were likely to be required in the future, Mr Robinson said.

On top of that, most users would require work to their water headworks to meet industry guidelines and manufacturers' specifications, which could cost from $500 to $2500, he said. There was also a charge to verify the accuracy of a meter.

"The TDC has been way ahead of other provinces for years in recording data, but Canterbury hasn't, and they got in a mess, so the Government brought in these regulations and we all get it in the ear."

Mark O'Connor, of vegetable grower Appleby Fresh, said he was resigned to spending a considerable amount on upgrading the multiple meters on the company's land.

"It's on my to-do list. I'm too scared to work out how much it's going to cost, but I will be going for the cheapest."

It was just another cost to absorb on top of higher power, fuel, fertiliser and road user charges, which were not matched by higher returns from vegetable crops, he said.

While he did not object to paying for water, the extra compliance costs and year-round reporting under the new system were a burden he could do without, Mr O'Connor said.

Delta water zone committee chairman Dennis Cassidy said he had not received a lot of feedback from water users. The few that had voiced concern would probably find that all they needed to do was get their existing meters checked for accuracy.

They were unlikely to need to do anything else until 2016, when most of the district's water consents came up for renewal, he said.

However, they should be aware that they now had to stay within both their permitted litres per second rate and their weekly take. "At the moment, you can pump it all on one day and sit out the rest of the week."

Users should not blame the TDC for any extra cost, as it was simply implementing government policy, he said.

The TDC and the Waimea Water Augmentation Committee had been among those which had successfully lobbied to allow people to keep their meters as long as they were verified, and for a phased implementation of the policy, Mr Cassidy said.