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Policy vacuum will see water woes worsen - report

Policy vacuum will see water woes worsen - report

A report released today warns the condition of New Zealand’s lakes, rivers and wetlands will “continue to decline for several more years and possibly much longer” under the Government’s flawed freshwater policy.

Fish & Game NZ commissioned Cawthron Institute – an independent research agency – to evaluate the Government’s National Policy Statement (NPS) on Freshwater Management following widespread concern that it largely ignores a Board of Inquiry’s comprehensive review of water policy and clear recommendations to address the country’s ailing waterways.

Fish & Game NZ chief executive Bryce Johnson says the findings in the new report now confirm the organisation’s fears.

“Fish & Game and other organisations criticised the NPS for ignoring the Land and Water Forum’s and Board of Inquiry’s key recommendations to have bottom lines for environmental management and a strong, centrally-led strategic direction which puts the environment first,” he says.

“What we have now is the old rhetoric about ‘balance’, which has never been defined and invariably ends up with the environment being the loser.

“Cawthron’s findings that New Zealand’s water quality is likely to get worse under the recently announced NPS proves our concerns are warranted.”

The report highlights a key failing of the NPS is that it ignores a recommended objective of safeguarding every freshwater body, instead focussing on maintaining and improving the “overall quality of freshwater in a region”.

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This means some rivers and lakes can be further degraded as long as regional councils have plans for others to be improved.

“Experience both within New Zealand and overseas suggests that an ‘offsetting’ approach is likely to lead to further degradation,” states the Cawthron report.

It cites a policy of “net water quality improvement” being in place in Waikato since 1993, which has ironically resulted in continued water quality decline across the region and an $80 million taxpayer hand out to farmers to reduce nutrient discharges into Lake Taupo. Further, an additional $210m has been earmarked to clean up the Waikato River and taxpayers will also foot the $144m bill to clean up the Rotorua lakes.

Mr Johnson says instead of central government providing leadership on freshwater quality, the NPS delegates responsibility to regional councils which have been ineffective at addressing water quality decline and overallocation.

Cawthron’s paper supports that sentiment, stating that regional councils can essentially “continue current policy”.

The report concludes that because key Board of Inquiry recommendations have been ignored, the NPS “will have no effect” on the main source of the problem – pollution from intensive agriculture – unless regional councils change their plans to require consents for diffuse pollution.

However, it points out that presently there is “no imperative in the NPS for them to do so”, and councils have until 2030 – 19 years – to set limits and standards to protect the most at-risk freshwater bodies.

“Imagine how many more rivers and lakes we’re going to loss to agricultural pollution in the interim,” says Mr Johnson. “Land use intensification in entirely unsuitable areas, as we’re witnessing with dairy expansion, remains unrestricted.”

He says the country has essentially been left with the status quo: poor policy that has resulted in 90% of lowland rivers and 50% of lakes now classified as polluted.

“Leaderless freshwater management policy, combined with the Government’s $430m push for irrigation and intensive agriculture expansion, suggests the future for our iconic waterways and the ‘100% Pure’ brand is pretty gloomy.

“A far better solution for New Zealand would have been to adopt the Board of Inquiry recommendations, which would have put some meaningful environmental constraints on agricultural intensification and some real integrity behind ‘clean green NZ’.”

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