8 Oct 2018

Govt sets five-year timeline for swimmable rivers

6:05 pm on 8 October 2018

The government is promising more of New Zealand's rivers will be swimmable in five years time.

A swimmer in a New Zealand river

A swimmer in a NZ river. Photo: 123.rf

It has unveiled a blueprint of its plans for environmental change, which includes new rules by 2020 around freshwater quality.

However, none of its planned changes will be made just yet.

Environment Minister David Parker said he would change the Resource Management Act within a year to amend consenting processes and ensure stronger environmental enforcement.

He also had plans to identify and manage nutrient discharges - which would identify high impact farms.

But everyone had a responsibility for cleaning up rivers, Mr Parker said.

"We're not only going to clean up our rivers, we're also going to protect our estuaries, going to make sure our beaches aren't polluted with stormwater overflows and sewerage systems, and restore New Zealand's waterways to the state they used to be."

New rules would be in place by 2020 to stop the degradation of freshwater quality, Mr Parker said, along with a new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and a National Environmental Standard.

"The rules will include controls on the excesses of some intensive land use practices...we will drive good management practices on farms and in urban areas."

Environment Minister David Parker

David Parker at today's announcement. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Federated Farmers water spokesperson Chris Allen said there had been huge investment by farmers in minimising environmental impacts over the past decade.

"Not saying every farmer has picked up those signals, but most have, and there's a lot of really neat stuff happening. We've just got to stop some of the really dumb stuff going on as that's what effects our water quality."

He said five years was really ambitious, but farmers had already started the process.

"There's a huge amount of work going on. We've just got to identify where those catchments are that have really got water quality issues.

"Everyone has a part to play, whether we're tourists, whether we're a farmer, or live in the township. Water quality is affected by all of us, so we've all got our part to play."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said the majority of farmers were on board and had indicated they wanted to help protect the country's freshwater.

However, they needed better guidance from regional councils, he said.

"The farmers have been doing as much as they can as quickly as they can, but the measurements have been confusing at times," Mr O'Connor said.

National environment spokesperson Scott Simpson said there is nothing solid in the so-called "plan" released today.

"I don't think that's moving fast or quickly and actually it was really underwhelming."

The promise by Mr Parker to make more rivers swimmable in five years was "doable", said Mr Simpson, because the quality of many of New Zealand's waterways was improving.

"But New Zealanders want to see something a lot more tangible, they want to see detail...what must be really concerning for the rural and agricultural sector is that there's still lurking around this prospect of environmental taxes."

Greenpeace is welcoming the government's fresh water work plan as a good step towards clean rivers but criticises its lack of immediate action to stop increases in cow numbers and pollution.

"There are already too many cows for our waterways to cope with", freshwater camapaigner Gen Toop said, "yet there are new dairy farms being built and existing farms are still adding more cows."

"The government needs to ban new dairy farms and end any further livestock intensification immediately."

Māori interests in freshwater

This government, like its predecessors, also continues to grapple with how to recognise Māori interests, while maintaining the long-held position that no-one owns freshwater.

It's leaning towards using a regulatory framework to give Māori a share of usage rights, as part of the broader plan.

Cabinet considered three options; the first was a straight royalty, payable directly to the Crown - but Labour's coalition deal with New Zealand First rules that out.

Another was to leave the issue to run its course through the Waitangi Tribunal and the courts, which the government acknowledged could still happen if agreement can't be reached between the Crown and Māori.

But the option favoured by the government was to "find a mechanism to more equitably share the resources over time through a 'regulatory' route", described in a July Cabinet paper.

The example given is that in catchments were water is scarce there would have to be a certain amount of usage rights allocated for Māori, that would not go over a level deemed sustainable, alongside rights granted to other users.

The paper said that was a preferable option because it focused "the debate on regulatory solutions tht meet Māori concerns, rather than a contest about 'ownnership'", and it was seen as much "more constructive" than leaving it up to the courts.

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