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Freshwater action plan - Expert Reaction

The Government has released an Action Plan for Healthy Waterways, which aims to restore rivers and lakes within a generation.

The plan proposes new requirements to improve freshwater including setting higher standards for swimmability in summer, interim controls on land intensification and a higher bar on ecosystem health.

The SMC gathered expert comments on the plan, feel free to use these comments in your reporting. Further comments will be sent as they are received.

Dr Scott Larned, Chief scientist freshwater, NIWA, comments:

"The basic premise of Essential Freshwater is that the existing regulatory tools such as the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) are not sufficient for preventing and reversing the degradation of freshwater environments.

"The proposals for stronger regulations that comprise Essential Freshwater were developed with input from freshwater scientists, iwi leaders, representatives from primary sectors and environmental organisations, regional council managers and other stakeholders in land and water management. Ideally, this broad range of input will lead to a broad base of support for implementation. The Essential Freshwaterpackage is ambitious and will be challenging for councils and land and water users to implement, but it may be exactly what is needed to initiate or accelerate large-scale improvements in freshwater environments.

"New Zealand has some persistent problems with water quality and ecosystem health in freshwater environments. These problems have been identified in Environment Aotearoa 2019 and earlier reports, and in numerous scientific publications from NIWA and other organisations. These are wicked problems in the sense that they have multiple causes, occur in complex and dynamic environments and involve trade-offs between ecological, social, cultural and economic values.

"The primary focus of the Essential Freshwater proposals is freshwater degradation associated with land-use practices. For example, elevated levels of heavy metals in urban streams are associated with land-use practices such as road use, and elevated levels of nutrients and sediment in rural streams are associated with fertiliser use, stock grazing, tillage and other farm practices. Reducing contaminant concentrations will require changes in land use practices. However, several challenges must be addressed before we can specify the land-use changes required with certainty. One of the challenges concerns gaps in our knowledge of land-use effects. These gaps are acknowledged in the Essential Freshwater package, along with the need to improve understanding through targeted science investments. A closely related challenge concerns long time-lags between land-use activities and adverse effects in freshwater ecosystems. In many catchments, contaminants generated by land use move through groundwater for decades before reaching rivers and lakes where their effects are observed. In these cases, the land-use regulations proposed in Essential Freshwater may have no detectable benefits for generations. This time-lag problem is recognised in Essential Freshwater through the adoption of Te Mana o te Wai as the water management framework, as intergenerational commitment to is a central tenet of Te Mana o te Wai.

"The proposed inclusion of multiple ecosystem-health attributes in a new NPS-FM could improve the range of freshwater values that are protected, including threatened and taonga species, fisheries and other ecosystem services, and native biodiversity. However, a substantial amount of work will be required to ensure that the ecosystem-health attributes can be measured accurately, linked to land-use practices, and predicted in the many freshwater environments for which no data are available.

"In addition to freshwater science, the Essential Freshwater package will require regulatory impact analyses, regional plan changes and other steps before it can be implemented. But first and foremost, it requires feedback through the submission process. NIWA’s freshwater scientists will review the details of the Essential Freshwater package and prepare a submission on technical issues. We encourage all stakeholders in land and water management to provide feedback, and all New Zealanders have a stake."

No conflict of interest.


Dr Chris Tanner, Director, Te Waiora Joint Institute for Freshwater Management, University of Waikato and NIWA, comments:

"The Essential Freshwater Package released today charts a courageous plan to address the broader ecosystem health and swimmability issues facing our freshwaters. It moves beyond the current limited range of water quality measures in place to address the wider health and functioning of aquatic ecosystems, and maintenance of the habitat, water quality and flows required to sustain aquatic life. The package presents pragmatic pathways. These outcomes could be achieved using existing powers available under the Resource Management Act, whilst leaving the way open for further RMA reform in the future.

"Engaging and involving tangata whenua and communities in the discussion, and putting Te Mana o te Wai –the holistic health of the water– as the first priority, has enabled a longer-term, more ambitious vision to be proposed. Recognition of the significant costs of inaction, including the practical challenges and huge expense involved in rehabilitating degraded freshwaters, and impacts on our long-term well-being also appears to have unlocked the Government’s resolve. It points the finger at both urban and rural land and water management and signals a turnaround in how we value the environment and the well-being it provides us.

"It is great to see the active involvement and uptake of ideas from a range of advisory groups, including the Freshwater Leaders Group and Te Kahui Wai Māori, as well as science and technical, and regional council sector advice. In many cases there appears to be close accord between these groups about what is required to manage the impacts of human activities on the freshwater values that New Zealanders hold dear. This, along with a strong general mandate from the public and general recognition by land-based industries of the problems that need to be addressed to regain public confidence, is likely to have strengthened the government’s resolve to confront these issues in this discussion document.

"Achieving the aims of this plan, once the most appropriate implementation options have been agreed, is where challenge will really kick in. Current land and water use will require significant change, and land owners and managers, industries and regulators will all need to modify the way they do things to ensure that plans are put into action, that real change occurs, and progress can be measured. This will inevitably increase costs and impact on the bottom-lines of some businesses, particularly in over-allocated and sensitive catchments. It will require a step change in land and water management capability and capacity by urban developers as well as farmers, and the advisors and professionals that support them. Greater involvement of iwi/hapu in decisions will also require resourcing and capacity-building to enable it to be incorporated in a meaningful way. It will require the application of a suite of new scientific and mātauranga-informed monitoring, modelling and mitigation tools. Lack of investment in this know-how will hamper efficient realisation of the improvements New Zealanders want in the health of their waterways."

No conflict of interest.


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