Horizons Regional councillors are moving to investigate partial changes to their One Plan because if farmers had to meet the current nitrogen leaching numbers a significant number of businesses would no longer be viable, says Horizons chairman Bruce Gordon.
"Horizons is responsible to its community and I want to reassure farmers that while our intention is to improve water quality, we are unified in not wanting to bankrupt multiple businesses. As a result, the Strategy and Policy committee have recommended Horizons instructs officers to prepare options for a change to the One Plan's policies and rules around intensive agriculture," he said.
"In the meantime, new application forms and guidance material for applicants seeking intensive land use consents under the One Plan have been produced as required by the Environment Court's decision."
The Environment Court's decision followed declaratory proceedings by Environmental Defence Society (EDS) and Wellington Fish and Game. Horizons staff will be meeting EDS and Fish and Game representatives later this month to clarify their expectations.
"While the new application forms have been reviewed externally and will be available by the end of August, the legal pathway for applicants to get consent is hugely complex and likely unachievable for many farmers. There is no certainty that in many situations restricted discretionary consents could be issued," Mr Gordon said.
"While 95 per cent of the One Plan has been successfully implemented, rules and policies for intensive agriculture have been particularly challenging.
"A partial plan change won't take another decade, however our main concern is getting the pace of change right. Plan changes are a public process and will also need to identify the impact on individual landowners and the community as we all work to improve our rivers.
"Trends for the past decade show that both regulatory and non regulatory efforts across all catchments have contributed to our region's water quality trends improving. This includes 58 per cent of the 36 monitored sites improved for total oxidised nitrogen (TON). We have recently increased these monitored sites to more than 70, which will allow for even more in-depth data to help inform future decision making and where best to target our collective efforts.
"Ultimately, our commitment is to the environmental, economic, and social wellbeing of the region as we move forward."
However, Pahiatua sheep and beef farmer Andrew Day who attended the strategy and policy committee meeting at Horizons on Wednesday, told the Dannevirke News he believes the regional council will have to revoke all existing consents.
"The Mangatainoka catchment has been grossly over-allocated (regarding nitrogen) and this now effectively transfers the liability to farmers in the upper Manawatu catchment, around Dannevirke," he said.
"I think there are some farmers who are starting to question why one farmer would be awarded a whole lot of nutrients over another farmer."
And although Horizons is hoping to work through the partial changes "around the table" with all parties, Mr Day said there is a fair chance they will be forced to implement the Plan as it stands or head back to court.
"It leaves farmers in a bloody awful position," he said.
"I certainly feel for the average farmer, but this is the whole reason I went through the Environment Court, then the High court and back to the Environment Court because the process was faulty."
Tararua Federated Farmers President Neil Filer said since the Environment Court rulings on the One Plan, many hundreds of farmers and growers in the region have been operating without a resource consent through no fault of their own and with no clear path forward.
"We've been in limbo, and the council has been struggling to catch up. But at the meeting all the language was around the need for a Plan change. That's a big positive and farmers feel things are heading in the right direction again," he said.
"The frustrating aspect for farmers - and no doubt the regional council - is that we were making significant progress on water quality milestones. For example, of 168 consents granted to date for existing farms in target catchments covering nearly 33,000 ha (about 20 per cent of the region's entire dairying area), farms had reduced nitrogen leaching by about 9 per cent or 100,000kg. Things were on track to double that total reduction by the time the estimated 400 consents for existing dairy farms were processed."
Some 58 per cent of 36 monitored sites improved for total oxidised nitrogen (TON) and none were in decline.
Acknowledging there are a significant number of existing farms unlikely to be able to meet the current One Plan nitrogen-reduction requirements while remaining economically viable, with no pathway under the current plan for farmers to receive a consent, Mr Filer said Horizons officers are gathering more detail on likely social and wider economic impacts.
But he said it makes common sense when farmers are under the financial cosh, so are the rural communities and towns.
"Horizons councillors heard that producing/commissioning the level of technical information now required for a restricted discretionary consent would cost between $30,000 and $40,000 a farm and council's processing costs would be on top of that," he said.
Six case studies of modelled farms involving low to high density dairy farms in Tararua, and arable farms in Rangitikei, showed reducing activity to meet the target nitrogen levels mandated after the Environment Court ruling would cut farm profitability between 24 and 64 per cent.
"The whole situation is entirely unsatisfactory and unsettling for farmers," Mr Filer said.
"We're pleased Horizons has recognised this and will focus on options for a Plan change.