Otago bursts out of the starting blocks

When it comes to implementing the National Policy Statement on Freshwater (NPS), the Otago Regional Council (ORC) seems to have taken a cue from Usain Bolt, bursting out of the starting blocks with Plan Change 6A.

This aims to give effect to ORC's Rural Water Quality Strategy and is currently hearing submissions from farmers and other groups.

The Otago approach to water management is different from other regions' strategies, because ORC is not relying on resource consents to enforce the plan.

Instead, ORC's preference is for most farming activities to be permitted, as long as certain water-quality limits are met over time, an approach which has sparked debate among experts on whether it will fulfil the NPS' requirements.

The plan sets both quantifiable objectives for all of the region's water-bodies and limits on how much nitrogen, phosphorous, sediment and how many bugs can be in water leaving a property when it reaches a waterway. This is certainly a unique approach, but farmers at the hearings are still wondering what exactly it means for them and their businesses.

Farmers submitting on the plan change have been supportive of not paying consultants to approve resource consents in order to continue farming.

However, they are asking hard questions about whether the proposal is achievable. One farmer from South Otago, for example, has double-fenced all his waterways, installed a stock water scheme and reduced his stocking rate, yet believes he will not be able to comply with the plan.

Others are questioning the use of the Overseer farm nutrient management programme as a measurement tool, as it is gives wildly differing results when estimating farms' nitrogen loss. Still more have called for a more robust discussion to take place at a catchment level, about what the limits should be and how best to achieve them.

All Otago farmers are nervous about how the rules around on-farm water limits meeting waterways will be enforced, having heard horror stories of farmers' experiences with Environment Court prosecutions, resulting in huge fines and criminal convictions, with no greater certainty of outcomes for environmental protection. It is important ORC creates certainty in the plan.

It also needs to develop farmers' trust so they get a better understanding of their farm's effect on water quality and what they need to do to improve it, thus avoiding court.

Instead, farmers with a proactive approach ought to be rewarded, like Olympic athletes, with medals round their necks and proud reputations to uphold.

- Hamilton News

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