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Healthy rivers – water quality: where to from here

The Government is pushing ahead with plans to make freshwater standards stricter in a bid to improve water quality, the Minister for the Environment, The Hon David Parker, says.

Preliminary work to create a new national freshwater policy has begun, with formal plans expected to start by the middle of the year.

The new standards would not entirely depart from those recently passed by the previous Government, but they would likely be expanded - and include more rules that apply nation-wide.

Mr. Parker has been quoted as saying that the new statement would go much further and put rules on other forms of pollutants.

Despite being in place since 2011, no region has fully implemented the NPS. Most have said they aim to implement the standards by around 2025.

Common issues cited by councils have been a lack of funding, lack of guidance, and differing expectations for what could be achieved.

The Land and Water Forum last year after reviewing the progress councils had made, said in its report "implementation has been slow, variable and uncoordinated", and there was "no one currently providing the leadership role needed within the freshwater management system."

The Minister was quoted as saying "I think the vast majority of New Zealanders share an objective that their waterways should be clean enough to swim in summer and there should be enough water left in the river to swim in,".

Multiple reports have pointed to rising nitrate levels in many rivers, particularly in rural areas, as well as increasingly frequent toxic algal blooms. Urban rivers are the most polluted.

This contention is backed up by recent comments regarding the worst parts of the country for water degradation, published in the New Zealand Herald, from Professor Russell Death where he states “In terms of severity the worst areas are still in urban and industrial areas”.

The Minister was also quoted as saying "Given there are some physical constraints on food, for example, we can produce for the rest of the world, it's important we maximise the value of what it is we sell... and part of that lies in our branding, and our branding has to be real rather than a slogan when it comes to obtaining a premium on our produce based on its quality and the way we produce it environmentally."

Over time, it would be best for New Zealand to move to higher land use practices, not just defaulting to dairy farming.

That may include a greater focus on technological advances, which could not only be used here but sold overseas.

"One of the objectives of the current Government is to enable higher value land uses that are not all dairying. When, for example, we deal with nutrient management issues and some of the technology research and development subsidies that are paid by the Government, we need to ensure these are enabling higher value vegetables, crops - not just dairying.

"If we do that right and utilise the technology coming forward that reduce the labour cost disadvantages that we suffer in respect of horticulture crops, that traditionally have a high labour content, we can sell to the world our incredibly high quality produce at good prices with a better environmental outcome then we currently have, and be wealthier as well as cleaner."

While we support the Minister 100% in his drive to ensure that we make improvements to water quality in our lakes and rivers, we still have some major questions to ask in relation to his press release.

In line with the report from the Land and Water Forum that said there was a lack of leadership being shown and that implementation has been slow and variable:

Why has the government not taken control of the process to ensure a national standard is enforced, rather than continuing to allow each regional council to apply varying standards, across the whole country?

We currently have the Waikato Regional Council, Healthy Rivers project, proposed plan change awaiting hearings before a panel of commissioners and yet their own staff are saying that they will find it almost impossible to implement the plan as it is currently written.

There has been huge expenditure from ratepayer’s funds (approximately $17Million) to get this plan change to its current position and there is going to be more expenditure for the ratepayers in challenging it at the hearings yet the council already knows that the plan change is not fit for purpose.

Surely good leadership from Government would see this plan change temporarily put on hold until it can be made fit for purpose and thereby saving the more than one thousand submitters from having to spend more money fighting against their own council at a hearing.

People are not against improving the water quality just the plan change process as it is not fit for purpose.

Good leadership from Government would surely include discussion around any requirements in relation to Climate Change, Greenhouse gas Emissions reductions, ETS and the proposed Zero Carbon Bill as opposed to the current ridiculous situation where, under regulation such as PC1 proposed by WRC, this is inconsistent with Government’s climate change goals.

To be undertaking legislative change at a regional level that is going to end up with requirements that are the reverse of New Zealand’s obligations at a national; and international level would be nonsensical to say the least.

Specifically, the grand parenting of diffuse nitrate discharge rights serves to discourage research and innovation into alternative / lower GHG emission farming methods. Grand parenting emissions rights based on past practice serves to discourage innovation and slow the adoption of alternative, less damaging farming practices.

Surely we can achieve more and better outcomes by taking the time now to ensure that all of NZ’s obligations under any international accords are accounted for whilst still achieving the desired improvements in water quality under local government legislation (i.e. PC1).

The Minister talks about the need to change to higher value land uses and ensure these are enabling higher value uses e.g. vegetables, crops - not just dairying.

How can this be achieved when you have Regional governments producing proposed legislation that prevents any further development of horticulture without the granting of a non-complying resource consent?

Under the PC1 in its current form we are prohibited from any new development of horticulture anywhere within the boundaries of the Waikato Region without applying for a non-complying resource consent and this is highly likely to be impossible to obtain or at least so expensive to obtain that it will prevent anyone from being able to make a profit from horticulture and therefore they will not bother.

So for the area that has probably the most intensive dairying activity in NZ (Waikato Region) there is no way that a land owner can change to producing crops or vegetables or to any other less intensive land without see their costs vastly inflated and capital investment severely reduced.

This then means that there is very little likelihood that any of the current dairying land users will make any attempt to change from dairying when there is no compensation being offered for the reduction in the capital values of their freehold land from any such change.

For the same reasons it is highly unlikely that the government will manage to achieve its target of seeing a billion trees planted as they promised at the last election.

What land owner in their right minds would voluntarily change to a less intensive land use with the attendant reduction in capital value and the reduction in income from that change?

Why has this government not put a moratorium on any further conversions to dairying across the whole country until they have solved this issue of one standard across the whole country for all other contaminants e.g. nitrates; phosphorous; sediment &e-coli?

Why has this government not taken action to at least plan for the eradication of all the pest fishes in the waterways?

The department of Conservation website quotes the Koi Carp as a noxious pest and states the following:

When they feed they stir up the bottom of ponds, lakes and rivers, muddying the water and destroying native plant and fish habitat. Koi carp are opportunistic omnivores, which means they eat a wide range of food, including insects, fish eggs, juvenile fish of other species and a diverse range of plants and other organic matter.

They feed like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up everything and blowing out what isn’t wanted. Aquatic plants are dislodged in the process and are unlikely to re-establish. Koi carp cause habitat loss for plants, native fish, invertebrates and waterfowl.

Under the Vision & Strategy contained in schedule 2 of Waikato-Tainui Raupatu Claims (Waikato River) Settlement Act 2010, Part 1 Vision,

Section k) requires: the restoration of water quality within the Waikato River so that it is safe for people to swim in and take food from over its entire length:

Without addressing the pest fishes there is every likelihood that in a short space of time there will be a severe detrimental effect on the ability of the Iwi to take food from the rivers due to the effects from the Koi Carp as evidenced on the DOC website.

They are huge producers of sediment in the waterways and likely also contribute highly to the levels of Phosphorous in the waterways from this process of sediment release.

So in relation to the Ecosystem Health as set out in the plan change document, surely Koi Carp must be addressed as they have a huge effect on the rivers from the damage they do.

Without addressing the issue of pest fishes we are unlikely to ever achieve the desired results of improved water quality no matter what other actions we take. In saying this I am not saying do nothing; but trying to emphasize the point that the whole issue of water quality needs to be addressed holistically taking into account all factors including any requirements in relation to Climate Change, Greenhouse gas Emissions reductions, ETS and the proposed Zero Carbon Bill.

Andy Loader

Co-Chairman P.L.U.G.

(Primary Land Users Group)

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