There’s an old adage about journalists that runs something like: “If everyone’s angry at you, you’re doing something right.” By that standard, Minister for the Environment David Parker would be an excellent reporter, as his new set of water quality proposals leaves nobody completely satisfied. Farmers face over $700 million in costs over the next 10 years and over $9,000 per farm per year in extra costs to plant more trees. 

The discussion document released by Parker and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor on Thursday contains a wide range of proposals for how to deal with what everyone agrees is a major problem. For the third year running, Kiwis have ranked water quality as one of their top two concerns in a Colmar Brunton poll commissioned by Fish and Game.

It also comes the same day as Newsroom reported on the presence of pesticides in New Zealand’s streams.

Intensification “controls” draw controversy

However, the Government’s main focus isn’t chemical contamination of streams. Instead, sediment, nitrogen and bacteria are the targets of the new freshwater policy.

In particular, the nitrates that make their way through groundwater and surface water runoff into rivers and streams from the urine patches left by dairy cows are the Government’s main concern. The chief way to avert this is to have fewer dairy cows, a vastly unpopular proposal with farmers.

While the Government hasn’t gone so far as to specifically mandate the reduction of dairy herds, it will implement an interim ban on the intensification of rural land use unless it can be proven that it will not increase pollution. The Government styles the ban as “interim controls”, a characterisation that Federated Farmers rejects.

In a statement, Federated Farmers environment and water spokesperson Chris Allen said, “But if it stops you from doing something with your own land, without appeal or any achievable recourse, then it’s a ban, pure and simple”.

However, the Government went with the mellower of two options in this regard. One of the advisory groups consulted on the new document, Kāhui Wai Māori, wanted a total, ten-year moratorium on intensification.

Instead, the Government’s plan will last five years, until regional councils produce their own plans for preserving freshwater policy. It also doesn’t come into effect until June 2020, meaning farmers could intensify their operations in the interim.

Parker said that this wouldn’t occur, arguing, “that would be a pretty cynical act and I don’t believe farmers are cynical”.

Nanaia Mahuta, Associate Minister for the Environment, agreed. “We don’t believe that farmers are the enemy here,” she said.

Nitrate caps open space for debate

In addition to directly cracking down on dairying intensification, the Government has also proposed three ways of regulating nitrate fertiliser use that could have similar effects.

The first method would only set caps on usage in catchments with high nitrate levels. Under this proposal, a threshold would be set for a given sub-catchment at, for example, the 75th percentile. All farms that leak nitrogen above the threshold would have 12 months to drop levels below it or provide a plan on how to do so “as soon as practical”.

The issue with this is that some farmers, particularly in Canterbury, have been rapidly intensifying their nitrate loss ahead of just such a proposal. Their higher nitrate loss rates would mean that they don’t have to reduce their nitrate loss as much as farmers who haven’t been gaming the system.

The second proposal would circumvent this by placing a nationwide cap for total nitrogen used in fertiliser per hectare annually. The cap would change depending on what the land is used for (vegetable growing, dairy grazing, beef or deer grazing, etc.) but it would not be altered due to geography.

The third option would involve existing ‘farm plans’, which farms voluntarily create to show how they plan to meet various environmental and emissions requirements. Plans would now be required to incorporate a schedule for reducing nitrate leaching and progress would be monitored by independent auditors. Regional councils would also be empowered to take enforcement actions.

Beyond their potential role as a tool for reducing nitrate loss, farm plans have been presented as a possible regulatory tool by the Government.

As it stands, farm environment plans are voluntary, though organisations like DairyNZ are pushing for all of their members to adopt them in the next few years. The discussion document weighs the benefits of making these plans mandatory.

If the plans were to become mandatory, then they could also be turned into regulatory tools. Most of the advisory groups that the Government consulted before releasing the discussion document cautioned against using plans as a regulatory tool, but widely supported making them mandatory.

Ecosystem health as a new standard

The Government has also proposed introducing a more holistic set of measures for testing water quality. These extend beyond merely “measures of physical and chemical water quality” and consist of five so-called attributes: aquatic life, habitat, water quality, water quantity and ecological processes.

On water quality, the Government has proposed significantly cutting the limit for nitrogen and phosphorus in freshwater. The existing bottom line is based on the point at which nutrient concentration threatens habitability but the new one is the point at which nutrients contribute to algal growth.

This means the bottom line for nitrogen will drop from 6.9 milligrams per litre to just one milligram per litre. 

The new limits would mean that nitrogen levels in waterways would have to be cut by more than 50 percent in much of Canterbury and by substantial amounts elsewhere in Southland, the Waikato, Taranaki and the Whanganui area.

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle says that this new policy is misguided. “In Taranaki, the proposed limits that they’re talking about here for [nitrogen and phosphorus], the rivers are generally higher than that. But they’ve got tremendous – in many places – ecosystem health. That’s because they’ve done so much fencing and riparian planting,” he said.

“The actual environment can have a big impact on ecosystem health, not just concentrations of [nitrogen and phosphorus]. Our big concern is that you may not actually fix the problem and … these limits could have a very significant impact on the viability of farm businesses and rural communities.”

Federated Farmers’ Allen said that the “long term targets for nitrogen reduction are effectively unachievable in some parts of the country and will end pastoral farming in these areas”.

Local government follow-through

Historically, one of the major stumbling blocks with any Resource Management Act-based environmental reform has been getting regional councils to enforce the Government’s will.

The existing National Policy Statement on freshwater was released in 2014 and amended in 2017. It mandated that councils create freshwater management plans, but a majority of regional councils won’t finish those plans until 2030, Parker said.

The new NPS has a more ambitious deadline, with councils slated to put their plans in place by 2025. In order to accomplish this, the Government is offering more guidance than it has in the past and – crucially – more money.

This year’s Budget earmarked $229 million for the freshwater plan and while not all of this is going to regional councils, the offer of resources is bound to help.

Local governments will also have to consult Māori to some degree in the new process. There are two proposals for how this will be mandated. One, supported by the advisory group Kāhui Wai Māori, elevates the status of mahinga kai to a compulsory value.

Mahinga kai requires that the kai in waterways be “safe to harvest and eat” and that the “mauri of the place  is intact”. At the moment, it is listed among “other national values”, but making it a compulsory value would require councils to consult Māori about mahinga kai before making freshwater decisions.

The second proposal would strengthen the priority given to “tangata whenua values” while making freshwater decisions. This option lacks specificity and is not compulsory like the former.

Noticeably absent from the discussion document is any entertainment of the Waitangi Tribunal’s mandate that freshwater rights be returned to Māori.  

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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