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Speech: Smith - EDS annual conference

Hon Dr Nick Smith
Minister for Building and Construction
Minister for the Environment

9 August 2017 Speech

Kia ora Hui Hui Tatou Katoa

Thank you for the opportunity to again address the EDS annual conference, particularly in this pivotal election year.

EDS continues to play an important independent leadership role in New Zealand’s environmental challenges, whether it be the issues of biodiversity, water quality, climate change, marine issues or the RMA. The very announcements I am making today on water quality can be traced back to the initiatives of EDS in 2008 to launch the Land and Water Forum as a stakeholder lead process to advance improved freshwater management.

These are exciting political times and barely a day has gone by this last fortnight without some sort of dramatic fracture through the parties wanting to form an alternative Government. I do wonder whether they could manage the pressures of Government. The further worry is the contradictory positions on key environmental issues of opposition parties wanting to form an alternative Government. On Freshwater, NZ First is opposing nutrient limits whereas others want tighter controls. On Climate Change, Labour wants to extend the ETS, the Greens want to replace it with a carbon tax and NZ First just wants it scrapped. On pest control, the positions on 1080 could not be further apart. The risk is policy deadlock. National offers consistent, steady forward progress.

The current difficulties in the Green Party are not new. It was the ideological positioning with the Alliance in the 1990’s that saw a similar split with the Progressive Greens then that ultimately benefitted National with the establishment of our Bluegreens ginger group. There is an open invitation to Kennedy Graham and David Clendon to join our Bluegreens. They are thoughtful, constructive and genuine environmentalists and it will be New Zealand’s loss to lose this experience.

This afternoon, I want to restate the underlying values of National’s Bluegreen brand of environmental activism.

At our core is our ambition to marry together good economic and environmental policies.

One goes with the other.

You cannot have a strong economy without high environmental standards, but nor can a country achieve high environmental standards without the resources of a successful economy.

We also base our environmental brand on robust science.

That is why as a Government we have ramped up our Research and Development investment, created the ten National Science challenges, appointed a Chief Science Advisor for the PM and most departments and earlier this year finalised an environment and conservation science strategy.

A third strand to our environmental brand is our commitment to a more collaborative approach to resolving environmental disputes.

We do not subscribe to the simplistic view of good guys vs bad guys and we view the courts as a blunt and often counter-productive way to resolve environmental issues.

That is why we have funded and backed the Land and Water Forum that has enabled us to make so much progress on freshwater.

That is why last year we initiated a new collaborative process to advance an NPS on biodiversity.

And that is why we this year amended the RMA to specifically recognise collaborative processes.

The fourth strand of our approach is the importance of stronger national direction.

We have advanced more national regulation, national environment standards and national policy statements than any previous government.

Regurgitating the same arguments 16 times over at regional level or 70 times over with local councils does not work for the environment or the economy.

These regulations have covered telecommunication, contaminated sites, electricity transmission, water metering, air quality and controversially pest control.

We were challenged in the High Court on this approach last month, but with the help of organisations like Forest and Bird, won a comprehensive decision on the legality of taking a national approach to regulating activities like the use of 1080.

We are currently consulting on National Environment Standards covering waste tyres, aquaculture and yesterday we announced a comprehensive standard for plantation forestry.

RMA amendments this year introducing natural hazards as a matter of national importance paved the way to an important NPS on this including climate change.

This will be just one of a number of further national instruments we will advance if we are privileged to be re-elected on September 23rd.

The most important of our National Policy Statements is that on Freshwater, and today I want to announce Monday’s Cabinet decisions from the Clean Water consultation that began in February.

There are five important changes we are making to the new NPS that will be gazetted tomorrow.

These cover much more demanding standards of water quality for primary recreation like swimming, new requirements for ensuring the ecological health of our waterways, more explicit requirements for considering economic wellbeing within limits, tougher requirements for limiting nutrients and algae and the provision for Te Mana o te Wai arising from our work with Iwi freshwater leaders.

There is a strong will from New Zealanders that they want water quality better managed, and that they directly link this to being able to safely swim in their local lake or river.

We cannot hope to deliver on this without a consistent system of grading and reporting. Measuring water quality for swimming in a river is diabolically complicated because the flows and concentration of pollutants vary wildly. That is why few countries do it and only now is New Zealand establishing a comprehensive system to do so.

I acknowledge the Clean Water grading proposals caused confusion and controversy. The proposals were based on a sophisticated grading system that used four statistical measures of river E.coli data, but to avoid the document being excessively complex only one was included in the document, with the others in an associated technical paper. The new NPS now includes all four tests.

There is also more detailed information on the comparative risks of the five gradings. The excellent or blue category is a risk of less than 1%, the good or green category less than 2%, the fair or yellow category less than 3% and the unswimmable categories greater than this.

These risks are calculated on the basis of a random exposure and without a person following the advice of not swimming in flood flows or when surveillance triggers public health warnings. Given the increased surveillance required as part of the NPS, and applying a bit of common sense, the practical risks are considerably less.

I am confident we have these settings in the right place for two reasons.

Firstly, the gradings are near identical to those used in Europe, and they are the only other jurisdiction that grades natural waters for swimming standards. Our lowest swimming standard – the yellow or fair standard, is stricter than their satisfactory grade such that 80% rather than 71% of our rivers and lakes would be swimmable under their system.

Secondly, there is a balance to be found in having swimmable standards that properly protect public health, but nor do I want them to be so cautious that we unnecessarily restrict people from enjoying outdoor recreation.

Another concern that we have responded to is how we can better focus regional councils on improving water quality and working towards the national targets.

The freshwater policy now explicitly requires councils to set regional targets to contribute towards the 90% by 2040 policy, requires them to improve water quality to achieve the target and to regularly report on progress.

A third concern was that the policy is focused on the 54,000km of rivers that are more than 40cm deep and lakes with a perimeter over 1.5km.

This is where the vast bulk of swimming and other activities like rafting, fishing and kayaking occurs. 90% of New Zealand’s catchment areas are covered by the target as smaller tributaries flow into the larger bodies that must be monitored and improved.

However, there are some smaller bodies that are important locally on which we also need to drive improvement.

Whole catchments will now have to improve, regardless of a waterbody’s size. However, the answer to this is not in extending the whole monitoring and reporting framework to every minor creek or stream.

Not only would this excessively drive up the compliance costs, but it would distort the improvement framework. Upgrading 10km of a very small waterway would be a lot easier than 10km of a decent sized river and should not carry the same weight.

Our response is to include a requirement in the NPS for Councils to identify those swimming or primary recreational sites in smaller water bodies, and to develop local plans to improve them.

The last important point on improving water quality for recreation is to note that this policy is not just about improving the proportion that is swimmable from 71% to 90% by 2040, but to improve all categories. We want to increase the excellent grade from 42% to 50% and the good grade from 14% to 20%. It will require every river and lake in the lowest swimmable ‘fair’ category, to be in the higher ‘good’ category by 2040.

To achieve these new NPS targets we will need to improve 1000km of waterways to a higher category every year for 23 years.

The next step is for councils to set provisional regional targets by March and final targets by the end of 2018. We believe the national targets are challenging, but we are also allowing regions to be more ambitious if they wish.

An equally important issue for our waterways is nutrients.

The National Environmental Reporting System under our new Act shows that while E.coli levels are overall static and phosphorus levels are dropping, the amount of dissolved inorganic nitrogen is increasing.

There are two important changes we are making. The first is to make explicit in water bodies with the risk of periphyton growth, it is this that should limit nitrogen levels in the waterway and not the higher level when nitrates become toxic.

The second change is that we have included, on the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum, a new decision-making tree for Councils to determine the necessary limits on nutrients for each catchment.

A key change in the new NPS is the increased emphasis on ecological health.

The Clean Water proposals included a new requirement to monitor macroinvertebrates in our waterways.

The revised and final policy, again on the recommendation of the Land and Water Forum, takes a further step forward.

It now sets a trigger point for action if the MCI drops below 80 and a process for Councils to improve this dimension of our waterway’s health.

Other changes to the NPS includes the recognition of Te Mana o Te Wai, and its integration into freshwater policy making.

There is the inclusion of economic considerations, albeit in a form that now makes explicit that these are within the context of environmental limits.

The monitoring and reporting requirements have also been improved with further advice from freshwater scientists.

This concludes this further phase of reform to our freshwater framework.

We all know, though, that the effectiveness of the NPS in delivering better water quality depends on implementation by our 16 regional councils.

Today I am also releasing two significant reports from my Ministry and the Land and Water Forum on how councils are getting on in implementing the new requirements to put limits in place.

I am encouraged by the progress, but there is much more to do.

The proportion of catchments with limits on water takes was 20 per cent when we became Government but now tops 80 per cent.

We have also seen sterling progress in implementing water metering, with the proportion of water taken now measured up from 25 per cent to over 95 per cent. You cannot manage what you don’t measure, so this progress is critical.

The most complex job for councils is putting in place limits on nitrates.

I was reminded how hard this is when attending the bi-annual meeting of OECD Environment Ministers, in which New Zealand is looked to as a leader in this area.

There were no limits anywhere in New Zealand on diffuse nitrate pollution when we came to Government, and these reports show real progress is now being made. We’ve gone from 4 per cent in 2013 to 8 per cent in 2015 to 20 per cent last year.

I want to conclude by outlining the next steps in our policy programme on freshwater.

The top priority is gazetting the national regulations for stock exclusion. These are close to conclusion but there are a number of important details in the drafting that we need to get right.

The next step is reforming our system of allocation and pricing.

The Technical Advisory Group we established last year is systematically working its way through these issues.

Our Government is not opposed to reform, but wants any new allocation policy to be fair, consistent and workable.

Those who argue water is just like oil or gold and requires a royalty are overlooking the fact that it is a renewable resource of which 98% flows out to sea unused.

Today’s announcement by the new Opposition leader to price all commercial use of freshwater is hollow without stating the price. Labour MP for Napier Stuart Nash has previously said this price should be 10c a litre for all commercial users.

Noting that it takes an average 400 litres of water to produce a litre of milk, that puts the price of milk up by $40 a litre.

You cannot pretend these sorts of new taxes are not passed on to consumer. A new charge at this level would be devastating for New Zealand’s major export industries like dairy, apples, kiwifruit, wine and vegetables that earn over $20 billion a year for our economy. These industries would be hit by a $600 billion cost.

And what’s the fairness in charging wildly different rates depending on the use. If it is more economic to bottle water and export it, rather than spraying it on to a paddock, why would the Government bias the use with different charges.

These unanswered questions just reinforce that the Government’s approach of carefully developing policy in this area through the Land and Water Forum, with the technical background of an advisory group, is the right way forward over policy on the hoof.

Another issue needing resolution is decisions on what infrastructure is to be included in Appendix 3 of the NPS. We plan a process of consultation on this next year.

The last issue is the important work recommended by the Land and Water Forum of developing national best management practice for sectors like dairying, horticulture, beef farming, arable farming, hydroelectricity and land development.

Freshwater improvement will remain one of our top environmental priorities.

There is no difference between the main political parties in a desire to improve freshwater management. The difference is that we have a detailed plan to achieve it.

We look forward to working with EDS, and other stakeholders, in delivering on that plan if we are privileged to lead the Government after September 23rd.

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