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Published: 2015-04-14 00:00:00

Developing a more detailed, integrated regional strategy to further improve management of Waikato’s freshwater resources, and position the region for the future, has been considered by Waikato Regional Council’s strategy and policy committee today.

A proposal for additional work in this area to inform existing plans and policies was requested by chief executive Vaughan Payne in the face of growing demand for water, the prospect of climate change affecting water supplies, new laws on water quality, and the ongoing development of water use monitoring technologies.

It was estimated recently that between a quarter and a third of the council’s $110 million-plus annual budget relates to the management of water quality or water use in the region.

A report to the committee said a more detailed regional freshwater strategy could help maximise the opportunities for using Waikato’s freshwater in an economic and environmentally sustainable way.

“Pressure on freshwater resources has increased significantly in recent years, resulting in increasing efforts to regulate the use [of], and for the condition of, fresh water,” the report said.

It said there are growing concerns, particularly in the agricultural sector and some urban areas, that water regulation will limit economic growth. There is also increasing interest in the potential for water trading and new technologies that could monitor water use and facilitate trading of use rights.

The intention was for any strategy to result in “a widely understood and agreed direction for managing water in the Waikato over the next 30 to 50 years”, the report said. A technical reference group of experts will guide strategy development.

“It is appropriate for the regional council, as the regulatory body for freshwater, to take the lead role in this project.” However, it has been stressed that other organisations will be closely involved in the development of the strategy.

Work on a strategy would follow on from the proactive Variation 5 and Variation 6 council policies to, respectively, protect water quality in Lake Taupo and manage water allocation in the region.

One of the report’s authors, principal strategic advisor, Blair Dickie said the impetus for an over-arching strategy was Mr Payne’s desire to ensure the council was operating in the water area as effectively as possible.

“The idea is to take a helicopter view of all the issues in the water space relevant to the council, as well as the issues of iwi partners and others, and to draw up an integrated regional strategy for water use,” Mr Dickie said after the meeting.

“Such integration is particularly relevant given the drive to improve water quality nationally, increased regional council water quality responsibilities under new laws, and the prospect of climate change affecting water availability. Another consideration is the likely development of new technology to better monitor water use and to facilitate trading of water use rights. There is also a regional plan review coming up which will need to look at a range of rules related to water, and a more detailed strategy would help in this work as well.”

Strategy and policy committee chairman Bob Simcock said the report raised a range of important matters relating to water and that an over-arching water strategy could have particular merit.

“Water availability and quality are keys to our ongoing health, both economically and environmentally,” Cr Simcock said.

“We need to understand the nature of the resource that is available and ensure we have adequate resources available for the future.”

Council chairperson Paula Southgate agreed it was important to have joined up thinking on water within the council, taking into account the aspirations of community stakeholders and iwi in a strategic way.

“Water quantity and quality relate to many of our core objectives, such as boosting the economy and environmental and social outcomes. With such a large part of our annual budget being relevant to water, we must continue to explore additional tools and information to increase effectiveness in this key part of our business.”

The planned next steps are to finalise a strategy development work brief by the end of May and to hold discussions with external partners and stakeholders over the proposed work during June.

Staff would then come back to councillors with recommendations for implementing the strategy development in July. Work on a strategy is expected to be done within existing budgets with a report due in December 2015.