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UPDATED Action For Healthy Waterways Package - Expert Reaction V2

The Government has announced new rules and regulations to clean up New Zealand’s waterways and protect them from future pollution.

The Action for Healthy Waterways package sets higher standards around the cleanliness of swimming spots, includes a new bottom line for nitrogen toxicity, sets controls for farming practices like winter grazing and how much synthetic fertiliser is used, and requires mandatory and enforceable farm environment plans, among others.

The SMC gathered expert commentary on the new package.

Professor Richard McDowell, Chief Scientist, Our Land and Water National Science Challenge comments:

“The Action for Healthy Waterways package represents the culmination of a decade of work that will protect water quality for future generations.

“Broadly, the package provides a balance between acting now on the low hanging fruit, such as stock exclusion and tidying up winter grazing, and recognising that policy work is ongoing in aspects like national bottom lines for DIN and DRP.

“Internationally the use of bottom lines is common and effective. Without a goal, there’s a risk that progress will be slower than New Zealanders will accept.

“The originally proposed bottom lines would have meant 6% of surface water catchments were over nitrogen limits and 25% were over phosphorus limits. We can manage our way out of some of that with good farming practices, but recognise that in some areas land use change will be required. Land use change isn’t cheap or easy, so I support the extra time being taken to ensure science backing up the bottom lines is fit for purpose.

“To help producers manage change, I support the use of mandatory, audited farm environment plans (FEPs). These plans can isolate critical source areas that lose most of the contaminants on farms, and targeting mitigations to these areas is 6 to 7 times more cost-effective than an untargeted approach.

“The Ministry for the Environment recognises the need for good decision-support tools like Overseer and FEPs, and we look forward to helping them be scientifically robust.

“The end game though is that we need to show improvements in ecosystem health. Our water quality monitoring networks will need to be redesigned to detect improvements in water quality and be linked to FEPs so that people are confident to put in mitigation strategies and get credit for them.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I sat on the Freshwater Leaders Group committee which informed Minister Parker”

Dr Scott Larned, Chief Scientist of Freshwater and Estuaries, NIWA, comments:

“The Action for Healthy Waterways reform package is a major step forward in improving New Zealand’s freshwaters.

“Some of the most noteworthy changes are in strengthening and clarifying Te Mana o Te Wai as an overarching framework for freshwater management, and elevating mahinga kai and mauri as additional compulsory values which, along with ecosystem health and human health, must be achieved and maintained in water bodies.

“Another major advance is in the broadened definition of ecosystem health, which now shifts the objectives of freshwater management from a narrow focus on chemical and physical water quality (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) to a broader focus that includes fish, aquatic plants, and ecological processes as well as water quality.

“Some of the other, similarly ambitious components of the Essential Freshwater package are new National Environmental Standards to protect our remaining wetlands, protect drinking water sources, improve fish passage, and regulate some agricultural practices that impact on freshwaters, and to strengthen the use of farm plans.

“Collectively, the components of Action for Healthy Waterways are designed to improve and protect aquatic ecosystems by managing activities on land more stringently than at present.

“The Action for Healthy Waterways package is not yet complete. More science and policy work will be needed to define environmentally sustainable river flows and lake levels, to allocate water to users more equitably, and to define dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus thresholds for rivers and ensure that they are effective in protecting ecosystem health.

“Action for Healthy Waterways is a far-reaching, complex package. Completing the remaining policy work and implementing the policies will be challenging for officials, councils, land and water users, and scientists. NIWA looks forward to working with all parties in this process.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Nicholas Kirk, Environmental Social Researcher, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, comments:

“The freshwater reforms revealed by Minister Parker today go some way to achieving the government’s goal of healthy waterways within a generation. The challenge in achieving this goal will be the implementation of these policies, and this responsibility will fall on regional councils. The $700 million announced today to help employ New Zealanders to plant stream banks, write farm plans, and build wetlands will assist councils with implementation. But regardless, I remain concerned about council capacity to implement these new policies, especially given most councils were struggling to implement the freshwater reform package passed by the previous National government.

“To help councils, the reforms revealed a new process for updating regional policy statements and plans, which are now to be overseen by expert commissioners and tangata whenua. But adopting this new process will take time and it is still unknown how this will speed up the typically slow RMA planning process. Many questions remain about council capacity to implement these reforms, for example: how will monitoring of new attributes, such as sediment, be paid for? Who will be employed to help farmers complete environmental plans? How will spatial exemptions for certain land uses, such as vegetable growing, work in practice?”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“It is important that New Zealand takes steps to rapidly lower nitrate levels in freshwater. Contaminated freshwater directly affects drinking water which has raised nitrate levels in many areas, particularly small rural supplies. These levels are high enough to be contributing to New Zealand’s high rates of colorectal cancer.”

No conflict of interest.

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