The government recently released a new plan for water called Essential Freshwater. The plan aims to have new rules in place by 2020 to stop the degradation of waterways and to achieve noticeable improvements in freshwater quality within five years.
One of the main changes is that a number of new advisory groups have been established representing science and technical advisors, Maori, councils and other interests.
The government’s first focus is on at-risk catchments where water quality is deteriorating which was a recommendation of the Land and Water Forum. The government is expecting to have a report on possible interventions by December.
Their next priority is introducing an amendment to the Resource Management Act by early 2019 to enable regional councils to review consents and more quickly implement water quality and quantity limits.
The Government plans to work with Kahui Wai Maori and the Freshwater Leaders Group, and other interested parties, to look at options for nutrient allocation system and consult on these in 2019 and 2020.
With regards to water allocation, the government wants to recognise Maori rights and interests in water allocation, and also consider existing users rights, economic development, and efficiency around water use.
In areas where water regularly becomes scarce and where this is limiting, the government has signalled there is a need to consider measures to support economic growth, land development, and community and environmental resilience. These could include environmentally responsible water storage and distribution, managed aquifer recharge, and technology to support greater efficiency. Options on water allocation will be developed in 2019/2020.
By 2020, the government is planning to have a new National Environmental Standard for Freshwater Management adopted. This may include national direction on reviewing consents and a default regime for ecological flow and levels where none are set, and how minimum flows apply to existing consents. Farm Environment Plans may also become a requirement.
The government also plans to amend the Freshwater National Policy Statement by 2020. This will be based on the Sheppard principles which prioritise the protection of water quality above other issues and this may include limits or rules on sediment, copper and zinc, and dissolved oxygen, and direction to councils on how to set limits and policies on at-risk catchments.
Amongst all these changes, we would like to see consultation with primary sector representative organisations planned. The representative groups are heavy on scientists and regulatory advisors but light on those with practical experience of farming. We need to see the impacts of any changes tested on the ground to ensure they are practical and affordable for farmers and growers to adopt.
Around changes to water allocation and reviews of consents, we also need to understand the impacts of changes at a national level on communities, and the economic and community impacts of any increases in river flows need to be considered as well as environmental impacts. While it’s appropriate to have the ability to review consents, water users and farmers also need certainty about the future in order to invest in making improvements like installing more efficient irrigation systems.
We are pleased to see the government supporting the use of Farm Environment Plans and looking at some of the innovative solutions to address water shortages being adopted overseas. Issues around Maori rights and interests in water are complex and the government’s timelines for making progress seem overly ambitious in this area.
A lot of these issues have already been worked through by communities in places like Canterbury and difficult decisions already made. Let’s hope these decisions are not undermined by these future changes.