Freshwater rules not fixed and final, O’Connor says

2:40 pm on 11 September 2020

The government's new rules to protect freshwater quality are not fixed and final and will be 'tweaked' to accommodate regional differences in weather and other factors, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor, also Biosecurity Minister, Food Safety Minister, Rural Communities Minister, Trade and Export Growth Minister of State

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

However, he also accepts that it will put more costs on to ratepayers and councils.

The West Coast-Tasman MP was responding to comments from West Coast Regional Council chairman Allan Birchfield and immediate past-national president of Federated Farmers, Katie Milne, who say the new rules are draconian, and in some cases unworkable on the Coast.

Regional council staff have also flagged increased costs because the new freshwater regulations would involve more mapping, monitoring, resource consent and compliance work -- meaning the council would have to take on more staff.

O'Connor said the West Coast was unique, but so were Southland and Northland, and while the regulations would provide bottom lines for water quality, different regions would have different interpretations of how to give effect to them.

"Regional council chairs around the country have said there will be huge variations in their councils' ability to implement the rules, and they have committed to helping one another work through them."

Highly prescriptive rules such as those around pugging in pastures would probably need adjusting, to fit different circumstances, O'Connor said.

"There will have to be some tweaks, as councils work through this with the Ministry for the Environment -- the policy is good but the implementation will need to be adjusted for each region.

"For the West Coast, they will have to take into account our high rainfall, and the sheer volume of water that passes through our farms. For example the nitrate build-up you get in some other regions simply does not apply here."

Ultimately, individual environmental farm plans would determine how water quality was protected, O'Connor said.

The new regulations would not be enforced this season; councils were obliged under the RMA to consult communities and they would have 18 months to implement them.

O'Connor accepted that the new regime would increase costs for councils and ratepayers.

"We accept there will be a need for more capacity and added costs but that is the reality of doing what needs to be done to improve the state of our rivers and streams.

"We do have the best freshwater quality in New Zealand here on the Coast but even so I get complaints from people that certain farm practices have polluted their local stream.

"If we end up with good farm plans, much of the cost will be recoverable. The big companies like Fonterra and Synlait and Silver Fern farms already require them to meet the expectations of their overseas customers."

The water quality issue had been around for a long time and the government was determined to make real progress on it, Mr O'Connor said.

Responding, Birchfield said if the new regulations were not set in concrete, it was "news to him" and council staff.

The council's science and planning manager Hadley Mills said he was unaware that the rules could still be 'tweaked'.

"We had not heard of this, but we will certainly be working with the Ministry for the Environment because there are some things that appear unworkable and gaps we cannot fill," Mills said.

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