28 May 2020

Government pushes ahead with landmark freshwater reform

7:13 pm on 28 May 2020

The government is pushing ahead with its landmark freshwater reforms that will introduce tough new rules to clean up the country's waterways.

Environment Minister David Parker at a press conference announcing the Government's reforms to clean up our  waterways, Beehive Theatrette, Wellington.

Environment Minister David Parker Photo: Pool / Stuff / Kevin Stent

However, some concessions have been made since the draft proposal went out for consultation last year.

There is also $700 million funded from money already announced to help farmers and other groups with the cost of the new rules.

Ninety-four percent of urban and 82 percent of pastoral rivers are unsuitable for swimming at some point of the year.

Environment Minister David Parker said the water reforms fulfil a number of Labour's election promises.

"The most salient environmental issue for a number of elections was actually freshwater, New Zealanders were worried that they were losing what they see as their birthright through the degradation of our waterways."

There are new limits on farm practices deemed higher-risk, such as winter grazing and feed lots, and interim limits on agricultural intensification.

A national cap on the use of synthetic fertiliser will also be imposed, to be reviewed in three years.

From July 2023 all cattle and pigs will have to be kept out of waterways more than a metre wide.

But some rules of around fencing and nitrate levels have been softened.

Fish and Game chief executive Martin Taylor said while the reforms were a significant step forward, there was still more work to be done.

"We need to ensure the enforcement mechanisms are actually robust and that councils will do the job that they need to do and the reality is many of them will need to be forced into a position of carrying out the Government's agenda and that's why we think a freshwater commission is probably the right way to go," he said.

DairyNZ said while farmers' feedback had been listened to, the nitrate toxicity standard was too high.

"For example, in Canterbury's Selwyn and Hinds zones farmers are already working towards a 30 percent reduction in nitrogen.

"Under these new regulations, these reductions may need to increase to 70 percent to meet the standards being proposed."

Its chief executive Tim Mackle said it was a double-whammy for farmers who were already on the journey to make significant reductions to nutrient loading.

"If further plan changes are rushed, it will have significant impact on confidence, jobs and communities," he said.

A topic of much debate among environmental and farming groups was a national bottom line for dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN).

Climate Change Minister and Greens co-leader James Shaw said the science was mixed so it had been delayed for another year.

"If you have got something that is politically contentious, and there is no scientific consensus, it is basically impossible to just pick a number, so we have said look we are going to give it another 12 months for the scientific community to try and come up with something," he said.

National's environment spokesperson Scott Simpson said he was happy that the farming community's concerns on costs had been listened to.

But he said there was still uncertainty about DIN and today's announcement lacked detail.

"Farmers and councils and all New Zealanders want clarity and certainty, the announcement today still leaves a lot of questions unanswered," he said.

But Shaw didn't agree there wasn't enough detail and said dozens of experts have been working on the document for two and a half years.

There was speculation in the lead up to the announcement the reforms could have taken even longer.

In the immediate fall out of Covid-19, NZ First MP Shane Jones said any new regulations should be delayed in the current economic climate.

However, he has since spoken to the farming sector on the matter.

"It was the peak bodies themselves who said they wanted a deal done before the election, because there is not guarantee they will have a more receptive audience after the election, and if they hadn't have come and actually lobbied, I probably would have maintained my earlier stance," he said.

Changes have been made in light of Covid-19 and the costs of the package have been reduced by an estimated $3.4 billion.

But Parker said delaying the reforms would have just meant extra costs in the long run.

He said they will be used to immediately stop further degradation of waterways and getting them back to health within a generation.

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