The Government needs a strategy for resolving Māori freshwater claims before it can move forward with its planned changes to the allocation of water and nutrient discharge rights.

Lakes, rivers, and streams should be cleaner within five years as a result of major freshwater policy announcements from the Government today.

However, long-stalled decisions on the allocation of both water and nutrient discharges are still some years away because of the need for a settled process to recognise Māori freshwater claims.

To negotiate a way forward with Māori, the Government intends to try “a regulatory route” that will give access to water for under-developed Māori land located in catchments where water is fully or over-allocated.

This would create “headroom” for Māori water takes that currently don’t occur and could include support for small-scale water storage schemes to allow such headroom to be available.

While Labour ministers still see merit in using prices and trading mechanisms to allocate water, that is abandoned for now, in part because the coalition agreement with New Zealand First prevents it.

The new approach also seeks to keep the Māori water rights issue out of the courts, while confirming the position of previous governments that “no one owns water”.

The documents say there will be no pan-Māori freshwater settlement, but that issues will be dealt with on a catchment-by-catchment basis and that the headroom allocation approach “would not create a property right at law”.

Key aspects of the strategy outlined today will be the third rewrite this decade of the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management and publication of a National Environmental Standard to drive early action on improving freshwater quality.

Environment Minister David Parker said the NES would include “controls on the excesses of some intensive land use practices”, including restricting intensive winter grazing, feedlots, and hill country cropping.

There would be Resource Management Act amendments within 12 months to let local government review resource consents to “more quickly implement water quality and quantity limits” and strengthen compliance tools.

The new NPS would give stronger national direction setting limits for resource use and better protection for wetlands and estuaries than the existing NPS.

The new NPS and NES will be in place by 2020, with Parker promising that “in five years, there will be a noticeable improvement in freshwater quality”.

However, the ‘Essential Freshwater’ policy document says that “because every catchment is different, the time required for improvements to show up will be different”.

The document outlines a process that will prioritise ‘at risk’ catchments first, with a view to first stopping further degradation and loss of freshwater quality, reversing past damage, and lastly addressing water allocation issues.

A report on ‘at-risk’ catchments is due by the end of the year, with urgent action prioritised either through existing rules, new regulation, or government assistance through the Provincial Growth Fund and the ‘one billion trees’ forestry planting initiative.

On addressing Māori issues, the “Shared Interests in Freshwater” document says the Government is committed to “considering how to better recognise these rights and interests in a contemporary system for freshwater management”.

“The Government would need to ensure that any re-allocation occurs in a way and at a rate that balances the need to provide for new users’ interests with the interests of those existing users,” says a Cabinet committee paper included in today’s policy dump.

The documents also describe “frustration” among Māori about slow progress on freshwater issues, complicated by the range of views within Māoridom about who should exercise control over Māori water rights and interests: iwi/hapu or Māori landowners.

The previously announced establishment of the Māori Freshwater Forum, Kahui-Wai Māori, would ensure wider consultation than in the past, where the Iwi Leaders Group was the primary vehicle for Government-Māori policy discussions.

Crucially, the Government is seeking to overcome “a building sense among Māori that there is no clear path ahead for the Crown’s engagement” on Māori water rights and interests.

KWM will have access to and the ability to provide feedback on draft Cabinet papers and will require independent research funded by the Ministry for the Environment in order to do its job, the documents say.

Also contributing to consultations will be an expert Science and Technology Advisory Group and a Freshwater Leaders Group involving people identified for their “personal experience and commitment, not as representatives of any organisations”.

The groups represent a broad church of contributors, with the TAG including Mike Joy, a Massey University freshwater ecologist who has campaigned against dairy intensification and the KWM group including long-time Māori sovereignty activist Annette Sykes.

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