The Government's freshwater proposals have long been signalled so the thrust of them should not be a shock to farmers. But it is critical a balance is struck in the resulting policy. This is key to a resilient New Zealand which looks after everybody's wellbeing - farmers included.
A wise man once said to me "the only thing that surprises me is that you're surprised."
Last year, the Government announced it would be making significant changes to regulations for freshwater in Aotearoa.
This would include amending the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPSFM), the document which defines how regional councils manage freshwater, and developing tough new National Environmental Standards which would limit land intensification and improve water quality.
The issues to be addressed were clearly set out, specialist advisory groups were established and primary sector groups were locked out.
So, we knew changes were coming. And we knew the intent. Like many things though, the devil - as they say - is in the detail. What has resulted is a significant document which some think will lead to wholescale change of farming. So how did we come to this?
Although the first NPSFM was promulgated in 2011, it was not properly implemented. Regional councils were inconsistent and often slow. This means that some regions already have strict and complex requirements about water, while others did little to change.
Moving to a model that estimates farm losses, not calculates environmental harm, may result in previously consented farming not occurring.
No surprises then that Government has sent a clear signal that changes in planning need to happen quickly, and that it wants rules imposed swiftly. This is to prevent ecological harm in the short and long terms.
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I support change and national bottom lines for our water are important. But not at the expense of community cohesion, rural resilience, and social development. Especially where limits and targets have already been set by local communities and translated into regional plans.
So, there are things which need careful consideration. Let me explain four for them.
In regions with already complex regulatory frameworks in place, another layer of regulation may be required, and may confuse.
In these places, local communities have been heavily involved for several years in the setting of water quality and quantity limits. These processes have been affirmed through RMA hearings processes, where evidence and submissions have been heard, and assessment of the social and economic implications of changes have been exhausted.
Will these communities have to relive this time-consuming process? Will the "limits framework" now suggested skew the outcome? And the RMA - which has been guiding these processes - is an effects-based statute but moving to a model that estimates farm losses, not calculates environmental harm, may result in previously consented farming not occurring.
There are catchments where further development may not have an impact on overall water quality - but modelling on a farm-by-farm basis would show a theoretical increase in nutrient discharge - a "no-no" according to the new document.
Farming and infrastructure developments are long-term activities with multi-decadal investment timelines. Some of the new regulatory changes will be required to be implemented immediately or by 2025, meaning some farmers will have to implement changes to their systems much more rapidly than they might otherwise have been planning for.
There are also virtually immediate rules limiting land-use change, intensification and irrigation development that kick-in at a very small scale - only 10 hectares - which is the size of a paddock for some large farms.
Tough luck some may say. I say, as we face an uncertain climate future, we need to ensure our policy and regulatory settings do not limit our future options.
We know that water availability is going to change – droughts will become more frequent and prolonged, and rainfall will occur in less frequent, but more severe events.
So, water storage and how our resources are allocated are just as important in protecting community and ecological wellbeing as setting water quality attributes and limits. We need to be planning for all options.
If we can make good decisions for our catchments and communities now, that allow flexibility whilst protecting our unique species and waterways, we can ensure our water resources continue to provide us with the range of values we have always enjoyed.
• Elizabeth Soal is the chief executive of IrrigationNZ, a national membership organisation looking after the interests of irrigating farmers, growers and industry professionals