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An algal bloom in the Selwyn River (Radio NZ, Philippa Tolley)
An algal bloom in the Selwyn River (Radio NZ, Philippa Tolley)

PoliticsMay 28, 2020

Te Mana O te Wai: What’s in the government’s new freshwater cleanup package?

An algal bloom in the Selwyn River (Radio NZ, Philippa Tolley)
An algal bloom in the Selwyn River (Radio NZ, Philippa Tolley)

The government has just announced a whole lot of new rules and policies for freshwater with the aim of urgently stopping degradation and cleaning up rivers over the long term.

What’s all this then? 

A massive package of work on freshwater quality has just been announced in an attempt to halt further damage and start restoring the ecological health of rivers, lakes and wetlands.

It’s aimed at both rural and urban waterways, and specific mention has been made in the various releases on requiring urban waterways to be cleaned up. However, many of the measures will also primarily affect rural water users.

How will the package do that?

Controls will be put on high-risk farming practices like winter grazing and the use of feedlots, and stricter controls will be put on nitrogen pollution. There will be a per-hectare cap placed on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser for all farmers except vegetable growers. That level will set initially be at 190 kgs/hectare/year, which in non-technical terms is still a pretty large amount of fertiliser.

Dairy farmers will also have to report to councils every year how much synthetic nitrogen fertiliser they’ve applied to their paddocks. It’s certainly not the only cause of dirty waterways, but one major factor for the decline in ecological health has been the seven-fold increase in fertiliser use since 1990. Fences will also need to be kept three metres back from waterways to prevent animals from getting in there and mucking them up – though that is down from five metres in the original proposals.

Underpinning it all for the Ministry of the Environment is the guiding concept of Te Mana o te Wai.

What does Te Mana o te Wai mean?

It’s basically a concept that means that the intrinsic value of freshwater ecosystems is an end in and of itself. Waterways have their own mana, and they should be kept healthy for their own sake rather than for the sake of them being a resource to be exploited.

Extremely low water levels in the creek leading into the Upper Nihotupu Dam in Auckland (Photo: Watercare)

But we do exploit waterways.

Yes, and there’s expected to be additional economic value in having those waterways being healthy. In a release from the environment ministry, the net benefits of the proposals were estimated at “$193 million per annum over 30 years”. How so? “They primarily stem from improved swimmability bringing reduced health risks, retention of ecosystem services from wetlands such as flood attenuation and water storage, and improved ecosystem health outcomes”.

Haven’t these proposals been going on for a while?

Yes, they’ve been in the works for pretty much the entire time this government has been in office. There was also a very fraught period of feedback and consultation, in which the farming world got extremely up in arms about the costs of the proposals at angry meetings up and down the country, shouting at ministry officials about how the proposals would destroy the industry.

And will the proposals destroy the farming industry? 

Probably not, because they’ve emerged in a somewhat watered-down form from the original version that was pushed last year. The costs of the package on farmers has been reduced significantly.

“We know the primary sector is facing challenges in the wake of Covid-19 so the government has reduced the cost and impact on them, including putting up $700 million in funding to help with clean-up efforts, but without compromising environmental benefits,” said environment minister David Parker. A large chunk of that $700 million will go towards measures like riparian and wetland planting, which is key to protecting waterway health.

For Federated Farmers, the final shape of the package reflects the advocacy of the rural world. “We are pleased that the government has listened to the rural communities, and worked out that they need to take them along with them,” said board member Chris Allen.

He said what was needed now was some pragmatism in their implementation. “There’s been some good changes, some adequate changes, and some stuff that has been left in, which will be the hardest. The one thing that farmers will need is some surety that the government won’t keep tinkering with this stuff every six months.”

But if the proposals have been watered down, will they actually do the job they’re meant to do? 

That’s the big question, and some ecologists are pretty unhappy with the final product. A release from the Better Futures Forum described the package as “kicking the can down the road” saying it’s now clear that substantive environmental change won’t happen any time soon.

Prominent freshwater expert Dr Mike Joy said the advice from scientists and Kahui Wai Māori (the Māori Freshwater Forum) had “fallen on deaf ears.”

“Instead, it appears the Minister for the Environment has caved into political and industry pressure to further delay implementing the long overdue instream nutrient limits.” He added that “the limits proposed by the specialist panels were key to achieving real change, and far from being extreme, would have simply brought New Zealand into line with the rest of the world”.

On the use of fertiliser, Joy pulled few punches. “If we want the genuinely strive for better water quality outcomes for future generations, we need to front up to the unsustainability of the current nutrient regime, and seek more regenerative land-use practices which have been demonstrated to be a win-win for farmer profitability and freshwater.”

There’s also been plenty of concern about rising levels of nitrates in drinking water, particularly in parts of the country where there’s intensive dairy farming. For those wondering, studies are still underway to determine the exact health effects of drinking nitrates, but it’s generally considered to be not good.

What will it mean for a cheeky summer swim?

Recreational use has also been considered in the freshwater package. “New Zealanders want to go down to their local swimming spot in summer and be able to put their head under without getting crook,” said Parker. And according to a release from Green co-leader Marama Davidson, the goal is to have rivers be swimmable again within a generation.

Keep going!