Quantum leap in water management policies

By Federated Farmers South Island regional policy manager, Matt Harcombe

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The debate centering on water and agriculture is a tangled web of interlinked policies, on-farm actions, science, emotion, perception and economic and cultural factors affecting its use, availability and quality.

Some factors are well understood, others are not. The biggest issue in the public eye is quality. However, access to water and its use, irrigation and storage are also vital.

While the vast majority of farmers are working hard to adapt and evolve alongside changing public expectations of water quality, they are also trying to keep up with the demands of the Government and regional councils, while working out what it means to their farm.

The farming community wants to play its part in ensuring everyone has reasonable access to and use of clean water but there is no clear consensus on what pathways should be taken to reach that goal and when it should be achieved, if it is achievable, at all.

Everyone who has had anything to do with farming knows the story of the early and mid-80s.

The removal of subsidies had a profound effect on the economic viability of many farms and sparked a quantum shift in the way New Zealand agriculture went about its business.

Today's debate on water quality and agriculture is as much of a quantum shift and we do not know if it will boost or damage New Zealand's largest export earner.

On May 12 last year, the Government gazetted the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (NPS), which essentially requires regional councils to set limits on water quality.

Last year, the Ministry for the Environment put together an implementation guide for the NPS.

The 50-page document is supposed to guide councils in their implementation and interpretation of the much shorter NPS, which could easily be read in ways that could put farming out of business.

The implementation guide provides some assurance the NPS is about protecting water quality in a balanced way.

The guide is clear that implementing the NPS should and will take time and involve innovative approaches. It also states the NPS cannot by itself achieve local objectives for managing water and that setting quality limits at a catchment level requires engagement with each community and conversations about all the costs of any approach.

The guide is clear that achieving limits is not required by a deadline of 2030 and looks for strong steps to be put in place to work toward achieving limits.

The NPS is not the only water game in town.

The Land and Water Forum (LAWF) is the Government's independent vehicle for reaching agreement, at a national level, between many different interests on plan for water management.

In its first two reports, LAWF made a set of recommendations to Government and its all important third report is imminent.

While LAWF is a laudable, if sometimes frustrating process, its recommendations will be too late for what farmers are facing now as councils throughout the country begin to implement their NPS interpretations of what needs to be done to set water-quality limits.

The NPS means a lot for farmers because their investments and businesses are on the line.

That means it is vital for all New Zealanders as agriculture is underpins much of the economy.

In this context, the Government has signalled it wants more agricultural growth to ensure we can pay off debt and not end up the Greece of the South Pacific.

Farmers know irrigation is an environmentally sound means to increase production. The Ministry for Primary Industries website says, "irrigation plays an important role in agricultural productivity and is a major contributor to the New Zealand economy".

"In 2002/03, irrigation was estimated to contribute about $920 million net GDP 'at the farm gate', over and above that which would have been produced from the same land without irrigation."

The ministry has identified a further 1.9 million hectares which could benefit from irrigation and has allocated $435 million for developing more water storage infrastructure.

Given the above contexts, while the NPS states the effects of its implementation should be reviewed by the Minister for the Environment after no more than five years, there are strong grounds for holding that review now.

This is for two reasons.

Firstly, there seems no point in LAWF collectively spending many thousands of hours and dollars in meetings hosted at Federated Farmers' boardrooms thrashing out what can be agreed on how, when and what to do about water management in New Zealand, only to be trumped by premature implementation of the NPS by overeager councils.

The recommendations need time to be debated by a wider public and then enacted, before we continue to interpret and re-interpret the NPS region by region.

Secondly, we need to ensure we get the economic and environmental mix right, through agreed, science-informed, community-led and catchment-based processes.

The removal of subsidies had a profound effect on agriculture. So will setting water-quality limits but Kiwi farmers are adaptive, innovative and resilient and will respond to the limits.

We need to make sure we have learned our lessons from the mid-80s. The social, mental and economic toll of overnight subsidy removal on rural communities and the economy was horrific.

Instead of jumping into such sweeping changes, farmers need to be given a chance.

Water policies, region by region

Auckland Regional Council is establishing interim Freshwater Objectives and Guidelines, followed by catchment-by-catchment limits. The council is collating technical data and talking with communities about values for water, then looking at what nutrient loads might meet those values.

Waikato Regional Council has enacted nitrogen caps in Lake Taupo catchment, and will work with landowners through monitored resource consents to reduce nitrogen loss by a further 20 per cent.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council has adopted a directive regional policy statement focused on enhancing water quality by managing nutrient losses and land-use change. Its Land and Water Plan has capped the existing nitrogen and phosphorus loss from land-use activities around the Rotorua Lakes.

Hawkes Bay Regional Council's Land and Water Management Strategy takes a catchment approach with values, guiding principles, objectives, policies and prioritised actions.

Greater Wellington Regional Council is currently consulting with stakeholders and the public on developing a new Regional Plan, possibly to be notified later in 2013.

Tasman District is reviewing its classification of different water-bodies and their status before undertaking discussion on limit setting.

Marlborough District Council is in the early stages of considering requiring new dairy farms to gain resource consents.

West Coast Regional Council has developed a specific plan for the Lake Brunner catchment, focused on managing phosphorous.

Canterbury Regional Council is consulting on a new land and water regional plan, classifying each of the region's catchments by their nutrient state. In over-allocated, or red and sensitive zones, land-use changes over the next five years require a 'non-complying' resource consent. It has adopted a tough threshold for nitrogen at 20 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year.

Environment Southland has introduced a regional rule requiring resource consents for all new dairy farming. The council is working through focus activities including hill country development, nutrient management and winter grazing. The council is in the process of deciding catchment-based limits.


- Hamilton News

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