Environment Minister David Parker has made water quality his political priority, a move that has put him on a collision course with some in the rural sector. Parker says his time in the Cabinet is finite and he doesn't want to waste it by failing to clean up rivers and lakes.

As one of the most senior and influential figures in the coalition Government, it should not be doubted that Parker will press ahead with policies that will have consequences for existing practices.

Though details are skimpy, the impact of what he is suggesting will slow if not reverse years of rural intensification, especially in the dairy sector. A new national plan will remove farming intensity as a "permitted activity" and tougher nutrient limits will be enforced. Parker says one of the few tools available to a Government is the ability to regulate — and it is clearly a power he intends to wield.

He appears keen to drive land use changes in parts of the country and has singled out cropping and horticulture in South Canterbury and orcharding with a robot workforce in central Otago, where he comes from. The economic impact is unclear. Parker admits no work has been done in this area, which seems an oversight. For credibility, the reforms would be strengthened by some meaningful assessment.

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Parker insists cow numbers will not be capped but the impact of what he proposes will likely have the same effect. If lower nutrient limits come into force, some dairy farms — and some sheep, beef and deer units — may struggle to conform. That certainly will have an effect on a farm's bottom line, but without clearer detail it is impossible to assess the full burden. If farmers are forced to cut stock numbers they will want tools to sustain profits with fewer animals. Parker needs to satisfy the sector this is possible.

The latest national water quality trends found cause for optimism with the state of New Zealand's waterways. While freshwater systems on the whole remain under stress, data from Land, Air, Water Aotearoa shows positive change in river water quality is possible.

The group, a partnership involving regional councils and environmental agencies, found improving trends for water quality were more common than degrading trends for all water quality indicators that its analysis measures. The results do not give the full status of the health of river systems but do suggest the overall picture is not bleak and indicate that the work of farmers in fencing streams and protecting wetlands is paying dividends.

More work is needed in urban areas, too. Despite this encouraging research, Parker is right to keep the pressure on water quality. New Zealand's environmental story has been well reported, and increasingly in unflattering ways.

Last year the OECD joined the chorus, warning the emerging environmental picture placed the country's green reputation at risk. Clearly our valuable markets can be swayed by how we treat our environment. A picture of improving water quality, of nutrient loads being reduced, of swimmable rivers, of urban cleanup, can only enhance the country's brand.