By Pattrick Smellie
Local communities will have much greater involvement in how lakes, rivers and streams are used and regulated under proposals served up to the government in the second report of the Land and Water Forum.
The report proposes regional councils take the lead on setting limits on water use and bottom lines on the quality of fresh water in each one of the country's many separate water catchments.
They would use a collaborative process involving community stakeholders, including economic and recreational users. The process requires development, but is operating in a trial form within the forum itself.
"Collaborative processes are unlikely to be cheaper in the short term," the LAWF report says, especially as the new way of working becomes more developed. "We expect, however, that used properly, the proposed collaborative plan and policy making process will be generally faster (in some cases significantly faster), more efficient and more equitable than the status quo."
The report also proposes a system for setting limits to use and benchmarking water quality, starting with a non-negotiable "bottom line" for quality and designations above that of "fair", "good", and "excellent".
There would also be provision for "exceptional circumstances" in which the national guidelines could be over-ridden.
Some 80 members of the forum actively participated in preparing and agreeing the recommendations of the second report, compared with the deep involvement of some 30 members for its first report.
Only one area could not be agreed, relating to when to allow appeals to the Environment Court on the outcomes of a regional council collaborative process.
However, the report recommends that where the collaborative process has been followed, appeal should be allowed only on points of law, with merit appeals permissible only where the collaborative process can be shown to have failed.
"There will be bottom lines to protect the mana and ecological health of our rivers, streams, lakes, aquifers and wetlands; that we will be able to fish, swim and gather food; that provision will be made to protect outstanding water bodies; and that, over time, the quality of our water will improve."
The report also recommends inserting two further national goals into the National Policy Statement on freshwater: the Maori concept of "mana atua" (the mana of the rivers) and a principle relating to safeguarding human health.
"These additions will lead to better protection for recreation, including fishing, swimming and mahinga kai/food-gathering, while leaving room for local choices to be made, including around the levels of economic use of waterbodies," the report says.
The Ministers of Primary Industries and Environment, David Carter and Amy Adams, welcomed the report, but indicated it would make no decisions on the regime until after receiving a third report from the forum, due in September, which will include recommendations on water allocation mechanisms.
“The Government will then be in a position to develop durable policies on fresh water management, based on the complete package of recommendations," the Ministers said.
However, the forum's chair, Alistair Bisley, sounded a note of warning about the potential for major changes to the consensus approach could derail the process.
"These recommendations form a package," he said in an introduction to the report. "Implementing some but not others risks the loss of the consensus and the constituency for change that it has generated.
In practice, the forum envisages the creation of independent panels, always including iwi representation, to run collaborative processes, which would involve public hearings.
Regional councils would insert a presumption, but a not a requirement, to use collaborative processes in policy and plan-making.
“New Zealand is a developed country with a significant industrial and agricultural base and an increasing population. Water quality will inevitably vary and not all of our freshwater will be pristine,” said Bisley, who has led the process which, since 2010, has gained increasing acceptance from traditional opponents, ranging from farmers and hydro-electricity generators through to kayakers and the trout fishing lobby.
“However, New Zealanders need to be confident that all the essential values and interests they have for water are maintained and enhanced" and this was why establishing national bottom lines for the state of waterways was essential.
“Communities can then collaborate to set specific objectives for their catchments and limits on discharge and resource use, and decide the timeframes to achieve them, so we can maintain and improve the quality of freshwater in New Zealand."
The forum is due to report in September on the most contentious elements of freshwater policy, especially relating to the use of market-based mechanisms to limit water takes and discharges.