Rules in place by 2020 will drive improvements in freshwater quality within five years according to a plan released by the Government yesterday.

Environment Minister David Parker said despite knowing the negative outcomes of intensive farming since 2004, New Zealand had been “kicking a can down the road for many years”.

“It’s just wrong that at the moment some people can’t pop down to their local river and pop their head under without getting crook.”

He said the Ministry for the Environment’s Essential Freshwater work programme is not a “talkfest” and the ambitious timeline demonstrated the Government’s intentions. Federated Farmers and a fresh water scientist, however, think getting agreement to the proposed changes won’t be easy.

“In my view this shows the limits of collaborative processes. Sometimes the competing interests in the room cannot realistically be expected to reach agreement.”

The work programme’s goals include stopping degradation and reversing damage. Another goal is to ensure the allocation of water supply and nutrient discharges are fair, especially to Māori, whose land is often less-developed.

The work programme sees the Government stepping in on contentious issues such as nutrient discharge allocations, a topic the Land and Water Forum could not reach agreement on and which Federated Farmers oppose.

“In my view this shows the limits of collaborative processes. Sometimes the competing interests in the room cannot realistically be expected to reach agreement,” Parker said.

The work programme released yesterday does not include the new rules which will be created to improve water quality but sets out what legislation and regulations would be created or amended over the next two years to help councils better manage water within their region.

“In some regions 95 percent of farms are said to be fully compliant with regional council rules yet problems are far from solved. This is solid evidence more effective regulation is part of the answer,” said Parker.

Regulations set to change includes amendments to the Resource Management Act and the National Policy Statement on Fresh Water. A National Environmental Standard or Freshwater Management would also be created.

New rules are likely to include regulations which will affect farming practices, such as intensive winter grazing and feedlots, and mechanisms for controlling intensification.

It is also likely the Government will help regional councils review existing consents such as those allowing winter grazing practices which cause too much erosion of sediment into the waterways.

“The right to use public resources has always been subject to limits on your right to pollute rivers,” said Parker.

Earlier this year $3.1 million was allocated over four years to establish a Resource Management Act oversight unit. At the time Parker said the unit would assist councils and improve the consistency of the enforcement of rules.

The freshwater work programme will be overseen by a multi-agency taskforce. Members include the Ministry for the Environment, the Ministry for Primary Industries, the Treasury, Te Puni Kōkiri, Māori Crown Relations Unit, the Department of Internal Affairs, the Department of Conservation, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and local government representatives.

Three other groups have also been set up to consult on the programme, Kahui Wai Māori – the Māori Freshwater Forum), a Science and Technical Advisory Group and a Freshwater Leaders Group which consists of environmental non-government organisations, community and primary sector representatives.

Federated Farmers water and environment spokesperson Chris Allen said getting the groups to reach agreement would be a challenge.

“The Land and Water Forum grappled with a lot of these issues. We came pretty close but it’s getting down to allocation.

“We see [nutrient] allocation is a property right. When things go wrong you either have to trade it, buy it back or extinguish it. We don’t have enough tools to measure it properly in precise forms at the moment. We can model it, but models change, so what are you allocating? There’s the problem we’ve got with allocation at the moment, so let’s stick with responsibility.”

He said seeing improvements in freshwater quality in five years is ambitious.

“We’ve got to hope the science gets us closer.”

“The farm is a biological system, you can’t crank it up any harder than it is at the moment. You don’t gain anything by pouring stuff on.”

University of Waikato professor of lake and freshwater science Troy Baisden said given the timeframe, success will require innovation more than new science.

“Farmers in many areas are keen to innovate and try new solutions, but can we get systems in place to prioritise the prospects in each area? And can improved monitoring quickly show if they work?”

Baisden is hopeful the task force can succeed where the Land and Water Forum failed.

“There were 218 recommendations across four Land and Water Forum reports, yet only 21 were fully implemented – less than 10 percent. Worse, over 50 percent of recommendations were not implemented at all.”

Freshwater ecologist Mike Joy is a member of the Science and Technical Advisory Group which will be involved in the work programme. In his view the timeframes need to be even tighter.

“The science is so close to being settled that won’t be the hard bit, it will be getting it past the other group.”

He said some of the policy changes are obvious. This includes amending the National Policy Statement on Fresh Water to better reflect nitrate’s effect on ecosystems. Currently it’s measured on toxicity.

“It’s like having a drink-driving standard which has the toxic level of alcohol in your bloodstream. We know, way, way less than that you crash the car.”

Joy said he thinks most of the big conversions have already happened and what he would like to see is current farms roll back intensification. He argues reducing stock numbers could improve returns for farmers.

“The farm is a biological system, you can’t crank it up any harder than it is at the moment. You don’t gain anything by pouring stuff on.”

A report identifying at-risk water catchments including recommendations will be the first part of the programme completed and is due in December.

The National Policy Statement on Fresh Water and National Environmental Standard or Freshwater Management will be open for public consultation in 2019 and in force by 2020.

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