A-one-size-fits-all, inflexible and punitive regulatory regime for water quality just gets backs — and costs — up, and most importantly, will not work. We have consistently argued that farmers will get alongside and work with sensible, practical and affordable catchment-based solutions based on an accurate assessment of the actual water quality.
We all want good, fresh water. All of us — farmers included — need, and have effects on, water quality, whether we drink it, use it for some commercial purpose or recreate in it.
The question is how you drive water quality improvements. There's no doubt there is a place for rules and regulation, but they must take into account the circumstances of each catchment. We must keep up the momentum with the water quality improvements we are already seeing in many catchments, not cut across this with cumbersome, draconian, one-size-fits-all regulations.
Federated Farmers believes regional councils should be required to go through the nutrient limit-setting process as per the current National Policy Statement, with a stick approach to achieve it. Some councils haven't done it, and that's a problem. If the reason is capacity issues for smaller councils, the government could help with resourcing. But we have to bear in mind that these processes are complex and take time.
On stock exclusion, the issue is about keeping stock out of water, not mandatory and arbitrary setbacks. A significant amount of work has already been done by farmers applying the appropriate method to achieve stock exclusion.
In dairy districts we should build on the Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord. Farmers have already invested huge amounts of time and effort, resulting in outcomes including stock being excluded from waterways on 97.5 per cent of dairy farms, and more than 99.7 per cent of regular stock crossing points on dairy farms now have bridges or culverts. We are seeing the improvements from this sort of work coming though. For example, a recent regional council report shows that almost half its rivers showed significant improvement, which has flowed from stock exclusion, extensive riparian plantings farmers have done and changes to effluent disposal.
A lot of regional councils do have good rules for stock exclusion, based on what is needed for their region. Councils that don't have rules are a minority, and need to get on with the job, but any proposed changes should be underpinned by robust cost-benefit analyses, and rather than bald measurements of attributes (nitrogen, turbidity, phosphorus, etc) the catchment-based improvement programmes should be geared around the values the local community rate as the priorities.
When we do issue national environmental reports, the findings should come with the full picture, not just bald numbers from a very limited number of sites. Farmers would also like to see consistency in approach across the sectors, and appropriate recognition of where changes that have been made are delivering improvements to water quality.