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Managing our freshwater resources

Hon Trevor Mallard
Minister for the Environment

14 July 2008 Speech Notes

Embargoed until:8.45am

Managing our freshwater resources

Environment Minister Trevor Mallard speech to the National Integrated Environmental Management Forum

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to come here today and talk to you about water and air quality management in New Zealand.

One of the key tools in achieving positive environmental outcomes through the sustainable use and development of New Zealand's natural resources is the Resource Management Act.

The RMA is an umbrella framework that offers councils a variety of mechanisms to allow and consider development applications in their local areas, or the use of resources like water – in a sustainable way that does not endanger the quality of the local environment for current and future generations.

Our clean fresh water is an integral part of New Zealand – being able to use and enjoy our rivers and waterways is part of our kiwi identity. That is why the Labour-led government is committed to ensuring we do not wreck this most precious resource.

The Sustainable Water Programme of Action is being developed under the auspices of the RMA and will carry a suite of national environmental standards that act like regulations and a National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management that will be the overarching framework for water management in New Zealand.

Some of these national environmental standards are already being enforced, others are going through consultation. A drinking water standard came into effect last month which will protect the sources of human drinking-water. It does this by requiring regional councils to consider the effects of activities on drinking-water sources in their decision making.

We are also close to finalising a standard for the measurement of water takes that will require resource consent holders to measure and report on how much water they use.

Having an accurate picture of water use is vital to good freshwater management.

And we are currently in the public consultation phase for a standard on setting ecological flows and water levels. If the level of water in rivers, ground water, lakes and wetlands runs too low — it can risk animal and plant life.

Today I am pleased to announce the start of consultation for another new national environmental standard - for on-site wastewater systems.

Failing wastewater systems – such as septic tanks—pollute our environment and risk people's health.

They can lead to lakes, rivers, estuaries and beaches becoming unfit for swimming, fishing or seafood gathering and marine farming. They can also cause sickness and disease in people from the effluent overflowing or ponding.

Failure rates of on-site systems for different communities are estimated at between 15 and 50 per cent. In some communities this has lead to high levels of faecal contamination in streams and springs – a situation that any normal person would regard as pretty disgusting and intolerable, I would have thought.

So it's in everyone's interests, including the property owners, to make sure septic tanks are functioning properly – as quite a bit is at stake if they are not – people's health and the cleanliness of their surrounding environment, and neighbouring waterways and rivers for a start.

The proposed national environment standard in the discussion document I am releasing today proposes a warrant of fitness in hotspot areas that will be designed to confirm the waste system is functioning properly and is being properly maintained.

Under this proposed national environmental standard, it will be up to regional councils to decide who needs to hold a warrant of fitness as they are the best placed to know their local environment and where the problems are.

The criteria for identifying hotspot areas may include locations with a history of problems with on-site wastewater disposal that have been identified through sanitary surveys or pollution hotline complaints or monitoring.

They may also include areas identified in plans or strategies as locations for intensification of land use, long-term growth or development, where sewage reticulation may not parallel development.

Other hotspots might be communities with a high proportion of on-site systems that use shallow groundwater for drinking-water or areas of highly seasonal occupation (relevant especially in attractive tourism spots) and not adequately designed on-site systems to cope with shock loads.

The Ministry for the Environment will be consulting on this proposal before any final decisions are taken, and I would urge people to give us feedback on what is proposed.

These national environmental standards will lead to more consistency in decision making. But the cornerstone of the Sustainable Water Programme of Action will be a National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.

The national policy statement will identify and address fresh water quality and how we manage the increasing demands on fresh water – both will be matters of national significance.

It will provide direction and more certainty to local government and the public in terms of improving integrated freshwater management.

Local authorities will also be required to set forward-looking water quality targets for New Zealand.

An independent Board of Inquiry will lead consultation on the proposed statement which I hope to release soon.

An important goal for the government is managing the undesirable effects of land use on water quality.

The Dairying and Clean Streams Accord – partnering Fonterra farmers and central and local government - was developed to set targets for protecting water bodies by keeping cattle out of rivers, lakes, and wetlands. It includes targets to improve management of farm effluent, use of fertiliser and other nutrients.

The accord has played a material part in understanding the impact of dairying on water quality, and the sorts of partnerships and initiatives that are required to reduce these impacts.

The targets have been good to shift the mindset of farmers who need to realise that if they are not clean and green, then their business and product brands will suffer in export markets where consumers increasingly demand environmentally friendly credentials.

However, it is evident that the accord objectives may no longer be suited to the need for a sharper focus on water quality and minimising the effects of climate change.

I'm pleased therefore that the scheduled mid-term review of the accord started in May and is expected to be concluded by January as this has given us a good process to focus the minds and make the necessary changes.

I encourage the parties to think about developing a proactive and innovative approach to manage the environmental effects of dairying.

This process must consider how the accord can assist the whole dairy industry to improve its environmental footprint.

We are heading for a carbon constrained future internationally, and if primary producers do not rise to the challenge and front-foot it by confronting the issue and managing their way forward, then I have no doubt their bottom lines and the value of their products and brand will suffer in the medium to long term or even sooner.

Voluntary initiatives will become increasingly important in assisting the industry to adjust and respond to these future challenges.

As well as taking an active role in improving freshwater management, the government is also working to improve our air quality.

Some urban areas in New Zealand are experiencing air pollution that can be harmful to health.

In September 2005 the government brought in the national environmental standards for air quality. These are to help make our air cleaner and set consistent bottom line standards for public health protection. These regulations have serious implications for industry after 2013 if the ambient standard for particulate matter (PM10) is not reached.

Since the introduction of the standards we have been proactively working with all regional councils to reduce the adverse effects of air pollution and improve air quality by 2013.

So where are we now?

In 2008, we are now nearly halfway to the 2013 deadline and many councils are working hard to improve air quality. Whilst most have action plans in place to meet the PM10 standard by 2013, annual monitoring from regional councils indicates that nearly 30 airsheds continue to exceed healthy levels.

It is therefore timely to review the implementation of the standards. So, Environment Ministry officials are currently visiting all regional councils to see how the standard is working in practice and to identify ways the standards could be made more efficient and effective.

In addition to this, the ministry is using the opportunity of each visit to share information on best practice in air quality management and central government assistance programmes. It may not surprise this audience that some of the best practice stories come from the smaller regional councils such as Tasman District Council with their point of sale rule on houses with dirty wood burners.

Their rule prohibits the use of a non-compliant wood burner after a house is sold. Either the buyer, or the person selling the house, can upgrade the burner. From a regulatory perspective, the beauty of this rule is that at the time of sale the cost to the householder is small relative to the cost of the house. And, with New Zealanders being so much on the move, the turnover of houses – and associated upgrade of burners – is at a scale to make a real difference between now and 2013.

The ministry has also undertaken an independent audit of wood burners to check their compliance with air quality standards. This is to build confidence in consumers, retailers and installers that the wood burners being sold and installed are as clean and efficient as claimed.

In conclusion air quality and freshwater management are complex issues. However, I strongly believe that by working together with councils and providing support in implementing regulations and developing policy statements, we can contribute to maintaining New Zealand’s "clean and green" image.


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