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Healthy Rivers


In November 2017 a statement was released by Vaughan Payne CEO of the Waikato Regional Council, which was headed:

Clarity needed in water discussion

This discussion paper was written in relation to the proposed plan change for cleaning up the Waikato and Waipa rivers and in it he stated as quoted below.


“Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora: Proposed Waikato Regional Plan Change 1 was notified for public submissions by council in October last year. While council notified it, the policy was developed over two-and-a-half years using a Collaborative Stakeholder Group (CSG). Effectively council handed the policy writing pen to our community and the sectors and industries most affected by the goal of improving water quality. This process required a huge amount of deliberation, consultation, collaboration and finally consensus between all parties.”

So where has it gone wrong:

To claim the CSG ‘collaborative’ process resulted in consensus is to view a result forced though by majority vote through the rosiest of glasses. Adoption of the CSG’s recommendations required the Chair’s casting vote. The WRC has spent approximately $20million to date (with $9million more already allocated) on their plan to improve water quality in both the Waikato and Waipa rivers. The absence of any real consensus suggests many more $millions could be required.

What have the ratepayers got for their money so far?

A plan which could force farming industries and rural communities from the Waikato region, little apparent improvement in water quality, regulation that discourages the individual from making environmental improvements, and a rural community that is divided instead of uniting to achieve practicable improvements in water quality.

How was the CSG developed?

Waikato Regional Council staff selected 24 sector representatives to be in the Collaborative Stakeholders Group. There was discussion amongst many of the stakeholders as to the adequacy of representation, particularly given the determination of critical matters by majority vote.

This fact is evidenced by the thousand or more rural landowners that have submitted against the proposed plan and have joined together in opposition through groups such as; Primary Land Users Group, Farmers For Positive Change, King Country River Care, Sustainable Vibrant Community Awareness Group, etc.

There is no question that opponents of PC1 support the objective of improving the quality of the Regions freshwater resources. What they do not support is a plan that discourages environmental and economic innovation and, perhaps unintentionally, rewards those landowners the most that has made the least improvement.

WRC has been unable to provide timely information relating to the implications and implementation of the Proposed Plan Change. The result has seen stakeholders unable to make fully informed submissions on the plan change. Perhaps worse, property owners and their bankers have had inadequate information with a likely chilling effect on investment and innovation including environmental improvements.

The CSG made an interpretation of the Vision and Strategy for the Waikato River introduced under Treaty settlement legislation that is to use their terminology, “Aspirational and Visionary”.

PC 1 proposes an 80-year timeframe to achieve the water quality objectives of the vision. The timeframe is intergenerational and aspirational rather than practical and relevant. It appears to disregard or reinterpret the bottom lines set out by Central Government in the National Policy Statement on Fresh Water Management.

Government’s National Policy Statement on Freshwater requires 90% of all rivers to be swimmable. PC1 requiring all rivers to be swimmable to the 95th percentile. Logic suggests they both can’t be right but irrespective of that, the difference is significant, a recipe for protracted and costly hearings and a disincentive to make any changes while the debate rages.

The CSG itself recognised, full achievement of the Vision and Strategy by 2096 is likely to be costly and difficult. The 80-year timeframe recognises the ‘innovation gap’ that means full achievement of water quality requires technologies or practices that are not yet available or economically feasible.

What WRC is doing with the proposed plan change is gambling that the technologies and practices needed to achieve an aspirational target will become available, be economically feasible and be implemented by land owners Their gamble is predicated on a Proposed Plan structured to favour the status quo and discourage innovation of even practicable measures leading to environmental improvement.


“We took this approach to create ownership and foster behaviour change at a community, sector and industry level. Those most affected need to own both the problems and the solutions. It means we all take responsibility and we all own the solutions.”

Land owners affected by and opposed to PC1 suggest WRC appear to not know what the problems are and therefore what practical solutions might look like. The possible solutions being proposed in PC1 are seen as financial suicide by many of the most affected land owners and their financiers, with no basis in fact for implementation of possible improvements and with little likelihood of measureable improvement in water quality if they did.

There is no mention of urban areas in the proposed plan change and yet on Monday the 29th May 2017, Nick Smith the then Environment Minister was quoted in the New Zealand Herald saying, as follows:

“People living in cities are just as responsible for polluting New Zealand's rivers as farmers, Environmental Minister Nick Smith says.

City-dwellers needed to "take a look in the mirror" and check their own contribution to water quality instead of criticising farmers about freshwater, he told an audience in Wellington today.

He cited the Ministry for the Environment's reporting on freshwater, which showed that the average E.coli level in urban areas was 400 parts per 100 ml. In farmland, the average E.Coli level was 180 parts per 100ml, in forestry land it was 50 parts and in national parks it was 20 parts.

"I give those figures because it is too easy for urban New Zealanders to point the finger at rural New Zealand and say this is all your problem," Smith said.

"My message to them is have a look in the mirror."

If people in cities were going to demand that farmers needed to improve their environmental record, they had to "confront the fact" that old, leaky sewerage pipes or diffuse pollution from urban areas also contributed to poor water quality.”

PC1 is focused entirely on the rural landowners in relation to mitigation of the detrimental effects on the waterways.

Using the publically available figures from the WRC and NIWA it can be seen that in relation to Nitrogen there are only fifteen of the seventy four sub-catchments in the Waikato region that are exceeding the final discharge levels in the eighty year plan.

The requirements on rural landowners for both stock exclusion and land use restrictions are going to be enforced forthwith with no consideration that in some circumstances, current farming will become less viable and this will increase farmer’s inability to service their debt loading and end with farmers forced from the land.


“The plan seeks to address the four contaminants causing problems for the rivers and lakes of the Waikato and Waipā catchments. Nitrogen is one of them. The others are sediment, bacteria, and phosphorus.”

39per cent of Nitrogen and 55 per cent of Phosphorus come from other sources than farming. The facts are that, yes, farming is a contributor, but it is not alone. What about these other sources?

If the decline of rural communities as predicted, and the increased growth of the main centres is correct (and this is exacerbated as expected under the enactment of PC1), then pollution from these other sources (e.g. stormwater and effluent discharge from urban areas) are only going to grow as a percentage of the total discharges.

The presumption in the Plan is that point source discharges from urban centers will require the best practicable management of those discharges. Productive rural land owners assume urban ratepayers welcome the pragmatism being applied to the discharges they will be paying for and question why a similar approach cannot be taken to all similar impacts on the environment.

From the current council figures, we know that 7 per cent of the N and 18 per cent of the P comes from point sources and the balance (32 per cent N and 37 per cent P) is from natural sources.

PC 1 places an emphasis on managing N which introduces the need for farm-level “Nitrogen Reference Points” (NRP) calculated using the “Overseer” nutrient management model (or any other approved model).

Much has been written about the inadequacy of Overseer as a regulatory tool, including by those who developed it. It is an expert system developed to assist with fertilizer and on-farm nutrient management.

As with any model attempting to describe biological processes, it’s predicted outputs are subject to errors. For example the minimum error (CV, coefficient of variation) in the predicted rate of nitrogen leaching from Overseer is about 30% but it can be much higher (>100%) if the incorrect input data is used, inadvertently or otherwise.

There is very little mention of other contaminants in the proposed plan change other than to try and partially address sediment levels through stock exclusion rules.

There is no mention of the effects on water quality of pest fishes such as Koi Carp etc. This species stir up the bottom of ponds, lakes and rivers and cause erosion of the banks as they feed, 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.

Koi Carp produce on average fourteen times their own body weight of sediment per year through the method of feeding that they use. It is estimated that there are approximately five hundred thousand tonnes of pest fishes in both the lower Waikato and Waipa Rivers and they will produce approximately seven million tonnes of sediment per year.

It is difficult to rationalize imposing significant cost and constraint on landowners in the name of water quality when the water quality in their catchments is determined by the presence of koi.

Environmentally futile regulation of groups in the community is not made less so simply because they are easily targeted.


“The resulting plan takes us on just the first decade of an 80-year journey to restore and protect the health of our rivers. We are collectively required to do so under the Government’s national policy statement on freshwater, and Te Ture Whaimana o Te Awa o Waikato, the Vision and Strategy for the Waikato River introduced under Treaty settlement legislation. In short to do nothing is not an option, other regions have already implemented plan changes for water quality and our plan change has balanced the environmental, economic and social implications.”

This statement in itself implies that there is an option to do nothing being promoted, and this is just not true.

I do not know of anyone who is promoting a do nothing option.

In fact the main thrust of all the protest against PC1 that I have seen and read, is that the improvement in water quality is fully supported but the proposed regulation is not fit for purpose and will do more damage than it will fix.

For this reason the proposal is to use a sub-catchment management system based on good scientific monitoring to identify the worst performing sub-catchments and then target those areas thereby giving better overall results in water quality in a shorter timeframe and with less collateral damage to the rural and national economy.

The current understanding is that achieving water quality restoration requires a considerable amount of land to be changed from land uses with moderate and high intensity of discharges to land use with lower discharges (e.g. through reforestation).

Restricting land use change on a broad scale across the Waikato and Waipa catchments is unjustified. Notwithstanding that, the determination of liability (and benefit) based on an arbitrary point in time (2014-15 or 2015-16) will have the effect of freezing land use in its current patterns.

Land use flexibility is fundamental to sustainable primary production enterprises and especially in relation to food production, where the enterprise must be able to respond to the demands of an increasing population and to adopt changes (including environmental improvements) as they present themselves.

In relation to horticulture the result of the proposed changes means that effectively there is no expansion of any horticultural production within the Waikato/Waipa catchments from this point (public notification of PC1, October 2016) forward. This will (due to expanding population) eventually have the end result of transferring food production (and any consequent environmental effects) to other areas outside of these catchments.

In the whole of the documentation for the proposed plan change there is a severe lack of any scientific analysis to support the proposed processes and in fact analysis that has been completed since the plan change was advertised has shown that some of the contentions in the plan change are wrong in fact.

The economic analysis carried out by the Waikato University School of Business shows that the proposed plan change will create a forty percent increase in farmer’s debt loading on average and this increase in debt loading is likely to cause many of these farmers to walk off the land.

This does not need to happen. If we use much better scientific monitoring of water quality levels on a sub-catchment basis, we will be able to identify the problem areas and target resources to those areas to achieve a greater improvement in water quality overall in a much shorter timeframe.

Andy Loader

Co-Chair P.L.U.G.

(Primary Land Users Group)

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