Getting the kludge out of the rivers

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
11 May, 2018

Kludges are short-term fixes that can patch things over until the main problem can be addressed. If the latch for the rear hatch on your people-mover breaks, a kludge that ties it shut until you can get it to the garage for repairs is just the thing.

But kludges should not be permanent solutions.

There is a lot of kludge in New Zealand’s lakes and rivers. It is in the aquifers too.

Environment Minister David Parker this week pointed to a lot of the symptoms of New Zealand’s kludge-style approach to water management. In some areas, there are more cows on paddocks than the waterways can really deal with. Nutrient limitation regimes put in by Councils attract litigation.

And water allocation must ensure that aquifers are sustainable and that rivers can run.

Government and councils have used kludge solutions to freshwater management because better solutions would require first sorting out iwi water claims.

Iwi and hapu may have freshwater rights that were not extinguished by Treaty, that were not purchased by the Crown, and that were not resolved through the treaty settlement process. Te Maire Tau’s recent discussion paper, Water Rights for Ngai Tahu, provides a compelling case – but one that still needs to be tested.

Avoiding settling those claims has restricted government to kludge solutions. And the costs of the kludge are mounting.

Better environmental management is possible. But doing it without compromising other important values requires a different approach.

Reasonable solutions in freshwater management combine catchment-level controls on the amount of water that can be extracted from rivers and aquifers with catchment-level controls on pollution. If water users can trade extraction rights and emission rights with each other, then the system as a whole can afford to do far more to improve environmental quality. People who can reduce their environmental footprint at lowest cost will be able to profit by doing so.

But we cannot get from here to there without finally addressing the underlying property rights issues. Minister Parker this week recognised that when he said that iwi rights had to be sorted out as part of establishing nutrient limits.

There is a lot of work yet ahead. But it seems we have a government that might finally be interested in getting the kludge out of the rivers.

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