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Pragmatic Changes To Freshwater Package Welcomed

Waikato Regional Council has welcomed pragmatic changes to freshwater regulations announced today, but warns implementation could be unaffordable for some communities as a deep recession looms.

The Action for healthy waterways regulations were released last year by the coalition government for public feedback, with Waikato Regional Council at the time applauding the overall intent but saying that many aspects were unachievable for the council and communities in the proposed timeframes.

“Overall this step change has been clearly signalled and our council has worked alongside the coalition government and the wider regional sector to develop and refine last year’s proposal,” said Waikato Regional Council chair Russ Rimmington.

“We’ll need time to look at the detail, but it appears government has listened to submitters in some respects while staying very much on the course they’d identified.

“They have reduced the impacts on regions and communities with some of the changes they’ve made, but on the surface it does appear there are very significant increases expected in our monitoring, policy and planning work, and engagement with farmers.

“This extra burden on regional councils will fall on us when communities are hurting from the effects of COVID-19. Our challenge will be meeting these expectations in a way that’s affordable for our ratepayers at a time when jobs are being lost and we are facing a deep recession,” Cr Rimmington said.

Waikato Regional Council chief executive and regional sector freshwater advisory group co-chair Vaughan Payne said: “This council has been leading New Zealand in community-driven planning so our waterways are safer for swimming and food gathering.

“We have worked very hard as the regional sector, along with the three other advisory groups, to help ensure any proposals are both practical to implement and achieve the intended outcomes across all wellbeings.

“We absolutely support the Government’s vision and can see a lot of necessary actions in the new regulations, many of which are already required in the Waikato region. We also support a more streamlined planning process and idea of having specialist freshwater panels that include regional council and tangata whenua appointees.

“There’ve been a number of pragmatic decisions by the Government in response to feedback, such as recognising that farmers who’ve already fenced off waterways shouldn’t have to move them to meet the new standards until they require replacement,” Mr Payne said.

“They’ve also listened to the sound advice of scientists and have put a hold on the dissolved inorganic nitrogen and dissolved reactive phosphorus attributes, allowing time for more research over the next 12-18 months to get these important attributes right.

“Farm environment plans have been targeted and the rollout prioritised, which we’d support,” Mr Payne said.

“We advocated for the deadlines for plan changes and regional policy statements to be extended, and the Government has done so by 12 months, giving us until December 2024 to have them notified and 2026 to have final decisions. This may still be a significant stretch.”

However, a decision to place a cap on nitrogen fertiliser use of 190 kg N/ha/year might have unintended consequences.

“New Zealand’s international competitive advantage is that we use sunlight, soil, fertiliser and rain to generate grass. If we can’t use nitrogen fertiliser to help grow grass because of the cap, farmers may have to bring in other forms of feed to maintain production, and so we may see an increase in cropping operations that can have significant environmental implications,” Mr Payne said.

Regional councils will also have to set up systems to receive and monitor levels of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use reported by dairy farms, he said.

Mr Payne said any disparity between Proposed Waikato Regional Plan Change 1: Waikato and Waipā River Catchments and the new Action for healthy waterways regulations will be resolved through the Environment Court.

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