Irrigation tax 'would cut the country off at the knees'

Our water is a valuable resource, even now when there is an over-abundance of it.
TETSURO MITOMO/STUFF

Our water is a valuable resource, even now when there is an over-abundance of it.

OPINION: There's a lot of strange things happening in the lead-up to the election.

Here we are in a country that has lately been inundated with rain and one of the major election topics is how much we should charge for water. Indeed we are still arguing about who owns the water.

Labour and The Opportunities Party want to put a new tax on farmers for irrigation water, side-lining the economic and resilience benefits. They want to lump farmers in with the multinational companies who are harvesting New Zealand water and exporting overseas.

I understand people's concerns when hundreds of millions of litres of water is being exported overseas. It is more than likely it is being exported under the premise of "NZ Pure", and the return to the economy is the cost of a resource consent, construction of a bottling facility, and a small amount of wages for some local staff.

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If we compared our water to oil that is exported from countries such as of Saudi Arabia - and in many cases our water is treated as a more valuable commodity - I do not see the Saudi authorities allowing the likes of BP to simply pay a resource consent and then essentially export the oil for free.

So yes, I do agree that if the water is to be exported as a singular commodity a royalty should be levied, because as a nation we're missing out on some valuable revenue.

But to charge farmers for irrigation water - or even more drastic, stock drinking water, if it ever came to that - would be cutting our economy off at the knees.

Farmers have invested in significant amounts of infrastructure that involved pumping, reticulation, and in many cases filtration. To add a per litre charge on top of those expenses would force many from the industry, raise food prices and make our commodities less competitive against imported goods.

It would also be comparable to charging city dwellers for every litre of water they use.

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"But we are already paying for our water", I hear my urban cousins protest. No, I'm afraid that is not the case. What you are currently paying for is the costs of the infrastructure used to collect, treat and pipe the water to your taps, not the water itself as currently no-one owns that.

But shouldn't the landowner have full rights to use of water if it is obtained from his/her property, provided it doesn't have adverse effects for neighbours? This is the reason regional councils monitor water takes and issue resource consents, isn't it?

Iwi have been clamouring lately for full water ownership rights, but what does this mean? They may want the right to charge everybody for water rights, but if I have a devastating flood or other rain event happens on my farm then do I have the legal option to charge them for damages?

And if we are talking tangata whenua, I am a fifth-generation dairy farmer so surely that makes me a person of the land.

As farmers, we got a nasty wake-up call about 20 years ago about our environmental performance, but since then I believe that we have all engaged proactively about making the land a better place for our future generations, and if this is not the true meaning of being a kaitiaki then I don't know what is.

Our water is a valuable resource, even now when there is an over-abundance of it. The simple fact that we only use about 2 per cent of our rainfall and freshwater before it enters the sea is a crying shame.

As a nation, we need to be able to better use our water to fully harness our economy's potential, but we need to do it in a way that is environmentally and socially acceptable and that does not mean that we automatically stock up with more cows.

By matching water availability with appropriate land use, it will open opportunities for numerous social and economic initiatives that will benefit the wider community, and have much improved environmental outcomes.

So, let's not blow it over some petty, emotional debate. Water is a finite resource that we can't live without, and it should be a basic right to have access to New Zealand water as a New Zealand citizen.

  • Andrew McGiven is Waikato Federated Farmers president.

 - Stuff

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