It was a single line in a policy announcement, lacking in detail.

The National Party’s primary sector growth plan, released last month, said: “As part of the RMA [Resource Management Act] replacement programme, National will consider ways to rebalance Te Mana o te Wai to better reflect the interests of all water users.”

The same line was contained in National’s environment policy, released on October 13, the day before Election Day.

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Act went further, saying it intended to scrap Te Mana o te Wai altogether, and New Zealand First wanted to replace it with the flatter principles of “four wellbeings” – social, economic, environment, and culture.

Changes to Te Mana o te Wai – the central concept of freshwater management in Aotearoa New Zealand – were little-discussed during the campaign.

And detail isn’t forthcoming from National as it begins negotiations with Act and New Zealand First before the final election count being revealed on November 3.

“We’re currently working on forming a stable National-led government and so not making any comment on policy,” says Todd McClay, the party’s agriculture spokesperson.

(The farming voice in Parliament has grown, it’s worth noting. Based on preliminary election results, 18 MPs have direct links to farming and horticulture, compared with 12 in the previous Parliament.)

‘We could become a country that pollutes water, rather than maintains or improves it.’ Gary Taylor, Environmental Defence Society

Now, environmental groups are raising concerns about the change which, they say, could be potentially damaging to freshwater, unwinding progress made since the first national policy statement for freshwater management was brought in by a National-led government in 2011.

Forest & Bird chief executive Nicola Toki says freshwater quality was a key election issue in 2017, and the changes three years later were made in response to that massive public pressure.

Water issues persist today, she says, pointing to the recent cryptosporidium outbreak in Queenstown and the massive sinkhole in Auckland which has sent sewage spewing into Waitematā Harbour.

Her contention is rivers and lakes will continue to suffer if Te Mana o te Wai’s hierarchy is watered down.

“There’s no mandate to either change it or get rid of it,” Toki says.

“A mandate can’t be driven by a minority of vested interests who are really good at making noise and talking about money, when the rest of the public have made it very clear that Te Mana o te Wai is crucial.”

Of National, which gained the largest share of party votes in the election, Toki says: “If they are intent on weakening a system that the public have called for, and has been embedded, and was started by their own party, I think they’re in very tricky territory.”

Environmental Defence Society chief executive Gary Taylor says Te Mana o te Wai is a pragmatic way of setting national direction to maintain or improve water quality over time.

“I would defy anybody to put up a rational argument as to why that prioritisation isn’t sensible.”

An ill-judged change could threaten healthy waterways. “We could become a country that pollutes water, rather than maintains or improves it, and I don’t think any New Zealanders would want that.”

Taylor describes National’s overall environment policy, and the freshwater policy in particular, as nuanced and balanced. Meanwhile, New Zealand First stated it will “address pollution of streams, rivers, and beaches as an absolute priority”.

Says Taylor: “I’m hoping that what we’re talking about here is the difference between retail politics during an election campaign and the politics of government – where you take advice from the civil service, you understand more deeply the implications of the sometimes-cheap-shots you’ve been firing, and you recalibrate your position, and provide proper, responsible leadership.”

A sign on the banks of Canterbury’s Selwyn River in 2021. Photo: David Williams

Farming interests have been pushing for changes.

Two of 12 policy priorities promoted by Federated Farmers earlier this year were “fix our unworkable freshwater rules” and “getting RMA reform right”.

(Another was “unlock potential through water storage”, something National appears to have listened to. A bright blue headline in its primary sector growth plan document was: “Unleashing investment in water storage”.)

“Yes, we have directly raised concerns on behalf of our members about the implications of Te Mana o te Wai for farmers and rural communities,” says Colin Hurst, an arable farmer in Canterbury and the Feds’ freshwater spokesperson.

“We discussed these issues with a range of political parties from right across the political spectrum: National, Labour, Greens, Act, New Zealand First and Te Pāti Māori.

“Looking at the positions of National, Act, and New Zealand First, I think it would be fair to say that they have heard our concerns loud and clear, and are working to address them.”

Enshrined in national policy statements since 2014, Te Mana o te Wai sets out the hierarchy of interests – putting the health of water bodies first, followed by the health needs of people, and then the social, economic, and cultural needs of people and communities.

Hurst reduces Te Mana o te Wai to a “complex cultural concept”. (Act’s David Seymour called it an unclear spiritual idea.)

The main problem, Hurst says, is that its key principles – mana whakahaere, Kaitiakitanga, manaakitanga, governance, stewardship, and care and respect – aren’t explicit or clearly defined.

“This raises concerns about what they actually mean in practice and how they may be applied in a regional policy setting process.”

(Toki, of Forest & Bird, says each change to the national policy statement has improved the meaning, while noting it “now has some teeth”.)

Leave it to communities

Federated Farmers’ view is the concept’s three hierarchies are important, Hurst says, but individual communities should decide what they value most.

“In some cases, that could mean communities want to go further and have completely pristine waterways, because that’s what’s most important to them for recreation, tourism, or any other reason.

“In other cases, the community could make an informed trade-off where they choose to have good water quality instead of pristine, because they want to see economic development and jobs in their region.”

There appears to be a resentment about policy being imposed on rural and provincial communities from Wellington. Hurst says more flexibility for local councils and catchment groups would achieve a “better balance”.

(If Canterbury’s experience is followed, regional councils and catchment groups are often dominated by farming interests.)

“Local communities are best-placed to determine how to balance their own complex needs,” Hurst says.

“It is local communities who will feel the cost of degraded water, but also the cost of lost opportunity if activities like farming or urban development are prevented.”

(Critics would argue all New Zealanders should have a say on freshwater quality, and higher quality is better for all interests, including commercial ones. Toki, of Forest & Bird, says New Zealand also has international obligations under the United Nations’ global biodiversity framework. “It would follow then that any changes to Te Mana o te Wai have to move us towards those goals, not backwards.”)

Everyone wants continued improvement in water quality, Hurst says.

In fact there are some great examples of farmers making changes to improve water quality right across the country.

“But it is the pace and scale of change that’s important if we want to achieve our goals.”

(Taylor, of Environmental Defence Society, says improvements are expected over time – “that could be a generation in some places”.)

Dr David Burger, sustainability general manager at lobby group DairyNZ, says it welcomes further clarity on Te Mana o Te Wai.

“Farmers need to know what is being asked of them and to have their say.”

“We look forward to engaging with the new government when it’s formed, to discuss water quality issues – as DairyNZ continues to work on research and sector-led implementation of on-farm action.”

Lake Heron/O Tu Roto has continued to increase in algae and turbidity. Photo: Department of Conservation

Haven’t we been here before? A new National-led government on a drive to boost the economy, especially agricultural exports, with a focus on greater investment in water infrastructure?

Toki, of Forest & Bird, certainly thinks so.

She harks back to the John Key years, the dismissal of elected Canterbury regional councillors, and the installation of appointed commissioners.

“There were a number of communications from ministers to officials about how to accelerate large-scale water storage and irrigation in that instance, particularly on rivers that had water conservation orders on them.”

Toki says she can only assume what “rebalancing” Te Mana o te Wai might mean. But if there’s a plan for greater agricultural intensification that looks like it did a decade ago, “we already know the consequences of that”.

The picture is of an increase in irrigated land, especially in Canterbury, accompanied by skyrocketing use of nitrogen fertiliser to accommodate a huge rise in dairy cattle.

At the other end, nitrate concentrations continue to increase in Canterbury regional council groundwater surveys, and, across the country, there is a worsening trend in more than half of river monitoring sites.

Says Toki: “I don’t think the public will accept it this time around.”

(There was a salient lesson earlier this year from Ōtūwharekai/Ashburton Lakes, that even a supposedly dedicated effort to manage pollution problems can fail.)

Could history repeat?

In June, Federated Farmers’ national board member Hurst wrote to Environment Minister David Parker about Canterbury’s regional council, ECan, applying Te Mana o te Wai at an individual consent level, which he worried would lead to huge costs for farmers and a consent backlog.

Yesterday, The Press newspaper reported that in the past financial year, ECan processed just a third of consents within the legally required time, and the council voted to spend another $3.5 million into consent processing to address what it called immediate performance risks.

One of the justifications for sacking ECan councillors in 2010 was its poor performance on consent processing.

Back to the present, and in the background, regional councils are getting on with developing new regional plans to usher in changes required by the 2020 version of the national policy statement for freshwater management (NPS).

The plans, with new policies and rules, will formally entrench the NPS elements – crucially Te Mana o te Wai and new bottom lines.

All this has to be in place by the end of next year, more than four years since the latest iteration of the NPS came in.

Last month, Bay of Plenty Regional Council finished initial consultation on draft options for its 13 catchments, known as freshwater management units.

This is where the national policy rubber hits the regional road, if you like – a council formulating a plan, while taking into account the community’s feedback and expectations.

“There have been considerable concerns raised especially around some of the existing regulations,” says Doug Leeder, chair of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, and who also heads Local Government New Zealand’s regional sector.

As he describes it, further intensification will be essentially prohibited in some catchments. Was that always the plan, he wonders, or an unexpected consequence?

“In some parts of the Eastern Bay, we’ve got something like 500 hectares of solar farms being developed. The opportunity for that land area to subsequently, at some time in the future, convert back to some form of pastoral farming, cropping, etcetera, is about zero.”

The public expectation is for a gradual improvement in water quality, Leeder says. But some of the reductions being requested seem draconian and impractical.

The whole process might be up-ended yet, depending on what the next government decides.

Leeder says if the NPS is changed, the quicker the government gets to it the better, with clear guidance for regional councils.

“The last thing we want to do is get through to mid-2024, or the end of 2024, and then someone changes the rules and we’ve got to go back and revisit the whole plan change.”

That, he says, would be a wasted effort, and a huge waste of public money.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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