Cheat sheet: Blueprint to rescue NZ waterways revealed

The government has just published its plan to halt the degradation of waterways and restore the health of freshwater over a generation. But one group says it ‘throws farming under the tractor’.

What’s this then?

David Parker, the environment minister, has just announced government plans for waterways. “Our rivers, lakes and wetlands are under serious threat after years of neglect. We can’t continue to go on like we are. If we don’t fix things now they only get worse and will be more expensive to fix,” he said, while riding the policy river aboard a raft of documents: an Action Plan for Healthy Waterways and a redrafted National Policy Statement and Environment Standards.

“Somebody has got to stand up for the rivers,” said Parker. “And we are.”

Have they scrapped a target in favour of a dashboard?

No, that was yesterday. The plan here is to improve the quality of our rivers, lakes and wetlands within five years, and get them back to rude health – swimmable, drinkable, generally fun to be with and not replete with shite – within a generation.

“Cleaning up polluted waterways is a long-term challenge that will take a generation to fix, but the steps in this plan will make a real difference and get things heading in the right direction,” said Parker.

How long is a generation?

“Everyone knows roughly,” said Parker. “It’s decades.”

What’s the plan then?

The headline change is controls on farm land intensification – intensification being a critical part of what makes some waterways 100% Open Sewer New Zealand. The brakes will be applied, pending regional councils introducing their plans by 2025.

So a ban on intensification?

Agriculture minister Damien O’Connor was quick to reject that impression. “This is no ban on intensification,” he said. Dairy or beef farmers could still intensify, just so long as they “do it in a way that doesn’t have an adverse impact on the wider environment”.

What else?

New regulations would require better management of stormwater and wastewater, tighter controls to prevent sediment loss from earthworks and urban developments, and farmers and growers drafting plans to ensure they manage environmental risks and follow good practice.

Farmers would need to take immediate action to reduce nitrogen loss in catchments with high nitrogen levels and exclude stock from waterways, including “more fencing and wider setbacks to keep stock out of waterways, reduce erosion, and capture contaminants before they reach the water.” They’d need, too, to meet new standards for intensive winter grazing, feedlots, and stock holding areas.

How did all that go down with Federated Farmers?

Like a warm cup of Manawatu River. The plans would “throw farming under the tractor”, it said in a statement. Some farms, it said, would have to reduce their nitrogen by up to 80%. “It becomes very hard to continue economically farming animals or growing vegetables under a regime like this. The long term targets for nitrogen reduction, are effectively unachievable in some parts of the country, and will end pastoral farming in these areas.”

Under the tractor!?

A “ridiculous statement”, countered O’Connor when it was put to him during the press conference. He said the nitrogen reductions were achievable, and had been reached after discussion with farming experts. He said the plans wouldn’t require change from farmers already following best practice, and he wanted to see “best practice become normal practice in rural and urban New Zealand”.

O’Connor stressed that he had sympathy “people in the cities who don’t understand what they do”, and “we know some farmers feel they are under pressure and we understand their concerns”, which was why the time span was set to a generation.

What did the National Party have to say about that?

Environment spokesperson Scott Simpson sprayed a “Short-sighted and flawed” condemnation. “The government is taking a complex issue that requires a measured, science-based approach and is instead proposing we hamstring our most profitable sector, which accounts for 60% of our exports. We all want improved water quality but this drastic action will smash the economic engine of our country.”

The Greens were always big on rivers, weren’t they?

There was no Green minister onstage at this morning’s announcement , but co-leader Marama Davidson issued a statement highlighting the intention to treat water as taonga and recognise te mana o te wai (“the innate life force of the water”).

It was high time, she said, for “a holistic approach that ensures our water stays clean and healthy from the mountain to the sea … Part of our Confidence and Supply agreement with Labour is to improve water quality and prioritise achieving healthy rivers, lakes and aquifers with stronger regulatory instruments, with funding for freshwater enhancement. We are really happy to see this important work coming to fruition”.

Any other responses, please?

Irrigation NZ was happy, acclaiming “an all-encompassing solution which includes direction for urban development as well as rural land and water”. The plan “will put a stop to ‘finger pointing’”, it said, presumably before reading Fed Farmers’ response.

Fish and Game NZ thought it was a step in the right direction, with “a number of good options”, but felt it risked letting the worst of the intensifying farmers get away with it unless there were tough sanctions.

What interests do Māori have?

Many. Among the proposals is to “strengthen the requirement to identify and reflect Māori values in freshwater planning”. But it will require much more than well-intentioned sentiments. A substantial Waitangi Tribunal report last week recommended a new regime to allocate water to Māori, criticised the priority given to farmers in water allocation, said it was time for the courts to rule on whether Māori retain native title in water.

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What will the government do on water allocation?

That prickly issue has been parked – or dry-docked, if you prefer – until after the next election.

What’s the timing on this current consultation?

It is open until October 5. You can make a submission here.


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