The Government is pushing ahead with what Climate Change Minster James Shaw describes as the “strongest protections a government has ever put in place for waterways”.
However, it has softened its position from that outlined in the package it proposed in September, landing on less stringent rules aimed at keeping stock away from waterways.
It’s also giving farmers more time to develop freshwater farm plans, and removing commercial vegetable growing from rules around intensification.
Importantly, the Government has decided not to implement a national bottom line for dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) for the time being. Its Science and Technical Advisory Group was divided on the issue, so it will be looked at again in a year’s time.
Minister for the Environment David Parker said a “helpful” suggestion made by environmental groups was for authorities to set different DIN requirements depending on factors like the catchment of the stream.
“It’s quite a complex matter, because these things do vary a bit around the country and it’s hard to arrive at a universal rule that’s effective, without over-regulating some parts of the system,” he said.
The Green Party wanted a bottom line for DIN.
Under the new rules there will be a strengthened bottom line for nitrogen toxicity, to provide better protection for 95% of freshwater species, up from 80% under the previous national policy statement.
There will also be a cap per hectare on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, excluding vegetable growers. It will be set initially at 190 kgs/hectare/year with a review by 2023. Fertiliser use increased seven-fold between 1990 and 2018.
And, dairy farmers will be required to report annually to councils on the quantity of nitrogen applied per hectare as synthetic fertiliser. Fertiliser companies will have to report on sales to ensure the overall level of use is heading in the right direction.
Coming back to fences, these must be at least three metres from waterways - not five, as originally proposed. Permanent fences won’t need to be shifted to comply with riparian setback rules, as previously proposed either.
Parker said much of the cost savings in the final package, versus the proposed one, can be attributed to the Government easing back on stock exclusion rules.
At $166 million per annum over the next 30 years, the cost of the reforms is estimated to be about half of that proposed last year.
However, government officials expect the financial benefits to be much higher, at $359 million per annum up to 2050.
They put this down to “improved swimmability bringing reduced health risks, retention of ecosystem services from wetlands such as flood attenuation and water storage, and improved ecosystem health outcomes”.
The Government has allocated $700 million towards primary sector and other groups to help them implement the new standards. The spin-off is for the new standards to help create jobs in riparian and wetland planting, removing sediments, and other initiatives to prevent farm run off entering waterways.
Parker said: “If it hadn’t been for COVID, I really don’t think that we would’ve had the support of the Minister of Finance to put that much money into those job rich areas.”
He said COVID-19 hadn’t changed the contents of the package, but did see some deadlines pushed out.
“You can’t make things better by letting them get worse,” he said, making the point that delaying this work would ultimately cost more in the long-run.
Parker, Shaw and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor talked up the benefits of New Zealand exporting sustainably-produced food - pointing out the premium overseas buyers will pay for high-quality products.
“Clean water and sustainable farming are entwined with the economic success of the sector - it isn’t one or the other,” O’Connor said.
The Ministry for the Environment received more than 17,500 submissions on its 2019 proposal - more than any other public consultation process it's run before.
Here is a fact sheet prepared by the Government:
- The Government is delivering on its commitment to clean up our waterways, with reforms that deliver environmental gains, jobs and benefits to the economy, while recognising the impact on the rural sector with a package of support.
- The measures announced today, will stop the state of our rivers, lakes and wetlands getting worse, make a significant improvement in five years and return them to health in a generation.
- Farmers in New Zealand appreciate the value of high quality water and many have done a huge amount of work to improve their practices over the last 20 years or more.
- The changes apply equally to rural and urban waterways, and include specific controls on covering urban streams.
The measures include:
- Using Te Mana o te Wai as our guiding principle, which prioritises the health of the waterway, then the needs of people and then commercial needs
- Cleaning up our rivers and lakes
- Setting higher health standards at swimming spots
- Requiring urban waterways to be cleaned up and new protections for urban streams
- Putting controls on high risk farm practices such as winter grazing and feed lots
- Setting stricter controls on nitrogen pollution and new bottom lines on other measures of waterway health
- Ensuring faster council planning
- Requiring mandatory and enforceable farm environment plans
The package contains rapid action to stop things getting worse in the short term including controls on high risk farming practices such as winter grazing and feed lots.
There will be lower e.Coli levels where – and when – people swim.
There will be a strengthened bottom line for nitrogen toxicity, to provide better protection for 95 per cent of freshwater species, up from 80 per cent under the previous national policy statement.
There will also be a cap per hectare on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, excluding vegetable growers. It will be set initially at 190 kgs/hectare/year with a review by 2023. Fertiliser use increased seven fold between 1990 and 2018.
Dairy farmers will be required to report annually to councils the quantity of nitrogen applied per hectare as synthetic fertiliser. Fertiliser companies will have to report on sales to ensure the overall level of use is heading in the right direction.
The primary sector, iwi/Māori, local government and their communities will be supported in implementing the package through the investment of more than $700 million from Budget 2020 for predominately freshwater-related activity.
Funding will be used to support actions like installing mini wetlands, removing sediment, riparian planting, helping farmers with stock exclusion and developing farm plans, stabilising river banks and providing for fish passage.
Rising nitrate levels in drinking water from aquifers has been an increasing concern in recent years. A Ministry of Health-led taskforce is assessing whether New Zealand research is needed into links between nitrate levels and human health impacts and is due to report later this year.
Expert specialist advisory groups helped develop the proposals, and we received over 17,500 submissions on the plan we outlined in 2019 – that’s more than any other public consultation process the Ministry for the Environment has run.
Concerns expressed by submitters and the primary sector, as well as the impact of COVID-19, have been taken into account. Further in-depth analysis of the costs and benefits has given us a clearer picture of the overall economic effects.
Key changes include a longer timeline for farmers on some of the requirements and a decision not to implement a national bottom line for dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) at this stage, although current levels will have to be maintained or improved. Existing permanent fences are not required to be moved via regulation.
The primary sector will play a critical role in New Zealand’s economic recovery from COVID-19. So the Government has reduced the cost and impact on them from the proposals put out for consultation last year, without compromising major environmental benefits.
New Zealand’s future wellbeing, including the wellbeing of our rural communities, depends on an economy that is both environmentally sustainable and generates high value for its people.
For the longer term, there will be a new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) to achieve permanent improvements and uphold Te Mana o te Wai. A new freshwater planning process will speed up the process of getting the NPS into force around the country.
To complement these actions, farm plans will be rolled out over time starting with higher-risk catchments and can be made mandatory and enforceable.
The Government will work with the agriculture sector to ensure it gets to a space where future generations have the kind of water that they deserve, that they want, and that this country needs. Efforts to achieve high quality water will be rewarded by greater value for our produce.
With mātauranga Māori – or Māori principles – for water management as the guide, the Government has developed a clear, robust and enforceable set of policies that will mean all New Zealanders can enjoy and benefit from healthy rivers and clean, safe water for decades to come.
Other changes include:
- Delaying consideration of a DIN national bottom line (maximum level) for 12 months, to allow time for a thorough review of its environmental and economic implications.
- Where fences are required they must be a minimum of 3 metres from a waterway, but permanent fences will not need to move to comply with riparian setback requirements, although freshwater farm plans and regional rules may require more than this.
- Developing mandatory and enforceable freshwater farm plan regimes and phasing their introduction over a longer timeframe.
- Removal of commercial vegetable growing from the interim intensification rules
The key legislative and regulatory changes are:
- Amendment to the Resource Management Act to deliver faster regional water plans
- A National Environmental Standard to hold the line by controlling riskier practices
- A National Policy Statement based on Te Mana o te Wai sets new bottom lines for swimmability and water health measures
- Stock exclusion regulations and water take measurement
- Mandatory and enforceable farm plans