Monday, August 22, 2011

Cleaning up our rivers

Yesterday, the Greens launched their plan to clean up our lakes and rivers. Water quality has been declining for years thanks to irrigation, industrial pollution and dirty dairying, with the result that more than half of our rivers are now unsafe for swimming. Its a pressing environmental problem that the government needs to do something about.

To fix this, the Greens are proposing a three-pronged approach. The first is tougher water standards, with limits on irrigation takes and restrictions on farming intensity. This is pretty obviously where things are moving, and even the government's National Policy Statement on freshwater management [PDF] requires the former, though its standards are weak and implementation time too long. The Greens are promising real regulation, rather than the half-hearted efforts we are seeing from National.

Second, there's a resource charge for commercial water use such as irrigation. This is a no-brainer. Water is a public resource. Of course businesses should pay when they use it. Plus of course there's the obvious efficiencies that result when you stick a price on something. This is expected to raise between $370 and $570 million a year, though its unclear whether the money goes to central or local government. There are good arguments for both, and a funding split seems like a good idea.

Finally, the Greens are pushing for more active cleanup, funded by part of that resource charge, with local body sewage schemes (desperately needed in small communities) and funding for farmers to fence and plant rivers and streams. Again, this is funded on a small scale at present, and the Greens are suggesting a massive expansion to get it done quicker.

Overall, its a good policy. Naturally, Federated Farmers hate the idea, but I don't think that's going to do the Greens any harm at all.