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Government unveils freshwater reforms; delays controversial decision on nitrogen bottom line; allocates more funding towards the programme than it would've pre-covid

Government unveils freshwater reforms; delays controversial decision on nitrogen bottom line; allocates more funding towards the programme than it would've pre-covid

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

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


Isn't this in conflict with regional council farming consents ?

Isn't farming, as practised, in conflict with the concept of sustainability - meaning maintainability?

This is clearly a sop, clearly it was coming, clearly it isn't enough - so clearly it will be revisited. I'd be putting my fences where they'll end up, I think.

But the change coming to the BigAg model, will probably knock much of this into a cocked hat. Local, regenerative, more labour intensive, more biodiverse - different world.

So back to our pioneering roots?

I doubt he'd regress that far. Cherry picked all the technology and wisdom and knowledge from previous generations and the current one that he needs and now sits there throwing stones at the rest of us.


I think im sustainable, I guess if i can only live long enough I will find out. Extensive farming has few inputs, as long as no one takes the sun away we should be okay.

Some major regional councils haven’t even brought in any sort of consents or nutrient monitoring processes yet so this at least sets some minimum standards for areas such as the Waikato region which don’t have any currently.
For other areas already operating under catchment rules then councils need to ensure their own rules are at least as tough as the proposed national standard, though from the extent of my knowledge most would be anyway.


Future generations will look back at the current farming model with credulity. Intensification of dairy herds too often on suitable land, ever greater need for irrigation to make it 'sustainable', more artificial fertiliser, the 'need' for PKE as a supplement(lets not bother with the wholesale destruction of rain forest to get it) and not forgetting that for most, this nirvana required massive borrowing with the return coming not primarily from a decent return on capital, but from the expectation of tax-free capital gains many years in the future. What a business proposition!!

Dairy farming on light free draining stoney soils is going to cause a lot of problems round here, council over allocated water. Solutions all involve land use change


There isn't one 'current farming model'. DairyNZ distinguishes five 'production systems', and I have no doubt that other Ag sectors (beef/sheep, hort, grain, seeds) have similarly dissimilar 'systems'. So talking about 'Ag' as one undifferentiated unit is just worthless. And that's before one factors in soil type, slope, altitude, rainfall and a host of other factors, most of which can and do vary across a single farm, let alone a whole industry group. This diversity is why centrally-planned, one-size-fits-all pronouncements just don't 'fit' when it comes down to particulars....

My thoughts exactly. People who talk about “farmers” in that sense are like racists who attribute certain characteristics purely based race.
It’s a shame that label throwing has become so popular.

I'm not farmist, I have farmer friends.

pointing out the premium overseas buyers will pay for high-quality products

Who are these overseas buyers?
Any evidence, or better still the existing undertakings by these overseas buyers lined up to pay more than the present prices received.
Shaw & Co must have this detail, of how much more China will be paying. Not to have this information would be

I've often wondered the same Henry. ;-) We are already getting premiums. Rabobank analyst: However, Bailey has sounded a note of caution about the premiums Oceania product is currently maintaining over the international market.
“Oceania’s premiums are somewhat alarming,” ...

China is tooling up, I expect soon they won't be expecting to pay for anything

But TV says China are the good ones. Btw which side do we get to be on?

China's ability to produce high yield animal protein, beyond fish is somewhat limited. Their Sheep and Cows are minute compared to the land giants we roam here. But good on them, the more stable China's food supply, the more stable everything else is.

At step forward at least and probably helpful in terms of trade with the EU as they will probably be looking at the sustainability of our agriculture as part of the free trade agreement negotiations - they've made it clear to the UK that trade agreements will require health and environmental standards compatible with those in the EU.

It has also being made clear that any NZ - EU FTA is highly unlikely to include ag, but especially exclude dairy. The EU as a whole is not in a position to demand clean water from NZ when it doesn't have it's own house in order on that.

Environmental Defence Society (EDS) seem to be happy that most of what was promised has been delivered.

It all looks like very good news to me - well done.

As one who has recently had first hand experience of the whole "Resource Consent to Farm" including a Farm Environment Plan and its subsequent audit at an all up cost of about $15,000, I can say that the whole process is a money-go-round for the consulting industry that does nothing for the environment. Tell the auditor what he wants to hear, show him the good parts of the farm and he gives you an "A" grade and goes away happy. And that's without resorting to real rat cunning.

Are we about enriching environmental consultants or monitoring water quality? Way simpler to just measure water quality directly as it comes on and off each farm at $150/sample. No averaging or guessing required. If I've polluted the river it becomes my responsibility to clean up my act. Similarly leaching losses can be measured in real time by lysometers. Without real time monitoring how does anyone know that the overseer programmers have understood all the complexities of all the different farm environments? It is conceivable that all of the catchment has ticked off environmental plans, but still the water quality declines. Too much emphasis on fencing. Stock exclusion does nothing for nitrogen levels. If a degrading waterway has never been fenced, why is fencing suddenly the answer? Wherever the fencing stops the water arrives from above that point. You simply cannot isolate a waterway from its catchment.

Oh yes. Its all about enriching consultants and regional councils and all the other parasites preying on farmers! Anybody who has been through the consent to farm/ FEP process will know what I'm talking about. Overseer is a complete sham! And now its gone private we are going to have another mandated body clipping the ticket forever! Got an email 2 days ago informing me that annual sub will be increasing from $2oo/year to $360/year, an 80% rise! Most of the so called "consultants" and "experts" have never farmed a day in their life and wouldn't know shit from chewed dates!

Agree about Overseer. Last season we had the option of Fonterra doing a nutrient report using Overseer or using Fonterra's own Nitrogen Risk Scorecard. I chose the latter to see what it produced in way of useful info. Way better report than Overseer from a management point of view.

Very interesting. At least there are some firm parameters to work within. I am concerned at the level of taxpayer money involved in remediating what is in reality the damage caused by the landowner who I assume has been merrily banking the profits for decades. Where is the landowners accountibility in all of this? On carving out vegetable that a good idea? Hort blocks use a huge amount of inputs and arguably flush a lot of that out the other end of the operation also. Thoughts?

Where is the regional councils accountability in all of this? Where are the feed suppliers, and vet services and trucking firms and fencing contractors and farm machinery suppliers and servicers thereof and rural bankers and insurers and shipping firms and supermarkets selling the produce accountability in all of this? (I've definitely missed a few out) Or have they not been banking profits?

Most importantly, you have missed out the end consumer who profits from cheap food.

all good points, I get annoyed by the binary nature of discussions around environmental impact...dig another spades worth deeper?

The requirement for a resource consent for winter crops on slopes greater than 10 degrees will cause some sleepless nights for many sheep, beef and dairy grazing on the rolling country of Otago and Southland. The finer detail looks like it is a month or two away. These crops will be going in the ground in October and November. Farmers are going to have to do some very fast planning, and ORC and ES will need to be very fast footed to deal with deal with the information gaps and consents required by the end of September. I think MfE hope that farmers will feed their stock through the winter using some other method. What the other methods are remains to be seen. Looks like a Wellington policy without consideration of local conditions. Unintended consequences loom. Perhaps the MfE home page says it all, under the section relating to the just released water policy is the section entitled Plan to fast track projects that can boost employment and economic recovery. Don't think that will be in rural Otago and Southland.

Also the requirement to re-sow within a month of last grazing - in Otago and Southland - impractical and impossible in almost all cases.

I(s that because you lose a lot of soil in a rainfall event?

Agree CO, Aerial application of seed is probably the only option for many, just because it is resown doesn't mean it will grow, sowing out in October/November will still be required. The cynical option will be to keep grazing until then.

im following with interest s no doubt we are going down the same path. I used to sow peas behind winter crop but not until frost season was over.

Andrew - ES had a mandatory buffer in crop paddocks. That will stop a lot of the issues. And I can't see why that shouldn't still be the case. You wouldn't get a tractor on to the paddocks because of the soil type, hence redtussocks comment about aerial seeding. Ironically 'spray and pray' measures on hill country was not going to be acceptable under the new ES water proposals, yet it looks like that's what we could be forced to do on all farms. The largest rainfall in our part of Southland is summer not winter. We get less rain on average in winter than summer, which is not the perception of those outside Sthland/Otago. Its the low daytime temps etc that keep soil wet. On farm we deep rip and aerate soils on an as required basis.

We all know these guys don't know what they are doing, poor thinking process is dangerous, very dangerous. We cannot fight it, we have tried and tried, with NAIT they are now they are more interested in your TB card than NAIT numbers, yet I just got an email from OSPRI saying how wonderful it is and how we are leading the world. Orwells doublespeak in action. They also have changed the transport rules, we all know it's a joke but perhaps the people getting paid are determined to hang in there hell or high water. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

And even on the West Coast - "a resource consent for winter crops on slopes greater than 10 degrees" will affect most if not all of the humped/hollowed paddocks put in decades ago on substantially level ground, to ensure runoff.....

I'm curious to know how they define slope. In the original doc, they referred to average slope over the whole farm. It should off course be defined over a much smaller area - say 1 Ha