The Government has just unveiled its long-awaited reforms aimed at cleaning up New Zealand's rivers – and advocates are already disappointed that there aren't any nailed-down limits for some key pollutants.

The new reforms set higher health standards at swimming spots, require urban waterways to be cleaned up and enforceable farm environment plans, and set stricter controls on nitrogen pollution and new bottom lines on other measures of waterway health.

They also put new controls on higher-risk farm practices such as winter grazing and feed lots.

The rules come with strengthened bottom line for nitrogen toxicity, to provide better protection for 95 per cent of freshwater species, up from 80 per cent under the previous National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.

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There will also be a cap per hectare on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, excluding vegetable growers, set initially at 190kg per hectare per year, with a review by 2023.

Dairy farmers will be required to report annually to councils the quantity of nitrogen applied per hectare as synthetic fertiliser.

Fertiliser companies will have to report on sales to ensure the overall level of use is heading in the right direction.

Farmers, along with iwi, councils and communities, will be helped with a $700 million fund to create jobs in riparian and wetland planting, removing sediments and other initiatives to prevent farm run-off entering waterways.

"Our environmental reputation is the thing that underpins our biggest export earners - tourism and agriculture," Environment Minister David Parker said.

"Many of our rivers, lakes and wetlands are under serious threat after years of decline and political inaction.

"If we don't start cleaning up our water now they will get worse, become more expensive to fix and we risk serious damage to our international clean green reputation."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said work undertaken to date estimates 80 per cent of dairy farmers won't be affected by the cap on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

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While some tougher measures had first been proposed, the Government opted to lessen the cost and impact on the primary sector, citing the role it would play in the country's economic recovery from Covid-19.

In the longer-term, there would be a new national policy statement "to achieve permanent improvements".

Freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy is disappointed in the reforms. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy is disappointed in the reforms. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Victoria University freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy was nonetheless furious there were no bottom-line limits for two key pollution indicators - dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) and dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP).

"There is nothing in there you can nail down – and it's all up to the discretion of councils."

Joy was also underwhelmed at the 190kg limit on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

"That is like telling somebody who smokes three packets of cigarettes that you will have to cut down to two and a half packs of cigarettes and that will save you from lung cancer," Joy said.

"That's incredibly high and it's not going to do anything."

The Government has pushed back considering a DIN national bottom line for 12 months, to allow time for a thorough review of its environmental and economic implications.

Choose Clean Water spokeswoman Marnie Prickett said unequivocal limits for nitrogen pollution was the main policy freshwater advocates had been asking for.

"It was also recommended by the Government's own Science and Technical Advisory Group that produced hundreds of pages of reports saying that to protect the health of rivers the bottom line should be 1mg/L for DIN.

"Likewise, submissions on the policy made by medical professionals supported 1mg/L because of the implications of nitrogen pollution for human health and the country's drinking water.

"But in today's announcement, the decision on this bottom line has been put off until after the election."

Parker however told reporters that no scientific consensus had been reached on DIN.

Waikato University freshwater scientist Professor Troy Baisden also noted another key change in the reforms.

Where fences are required they must be a minimum of three metres from a waterway – instead of the five-metre distance earlier proposed.

Permanent fences will not need to move to comply with riparian setback requirements, although freshwater farm plans and regional rules may require more than this.

On the lack of set bottom lines for phosphorus and nitrate pollutants, Baisden pointed out the Government had set a timeframe for continuing to consider them.

"Nobody is off the hook here. The real issue here, is we have been through a huge process and we've actually got to think again and talk about it over the election."

Fish & Game chief executive Martin Taylor said the new rules in the reforms, if enforced, would achieve the aim of preventing further decline by establishing for the first time a cap on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and strengthening the nitrogen toxicity attributes and bottom lines to protect 95 per cent of species.

However, he said the postponement for 12 months of a DIN bottom line was a concern as only five out of the 19 scientists didn't want it set at ecosystem health levels of 1 or lower.

"We expect that science will prevail."

Environmentalists weren't the only ones unhappy with parts of the reforms.

Dairy New Zealand chief executive Tim Mackle said the proposed 95 per cent protection standard would severely affect farmers in catchments already taking significant action towards reducing their footprint in line with new regional council policy plans.

In Canterbury's Selwyn and Hinds zones, farmers were already working towards a 30 per cent reduction in nitrogen, he said, but under the new regulations, these reductions may need to increase to 70 per cent to meet the standards being proposed.

"This is a double-whammy for farmers who were already on the journey to make significant reductions to nutrient loading," Mackle said.

"If further plan changes are rushed, it will have significant impact on confidence, jobs and communities."

He said the Government's decision to park the DIN measure and remove first-proposed measures to move back existing fences to meet new stock exclusion guidelines would "provide reassurance" to farmers.

"Our environmental reputation is the thing that underpins our biggest export earners - tourism and agriculture," Environment Minister David Parker says. Photo / NZME

Federated Farmers' Chris Allen said: "While we're still working through the detail, the high-level policy decisions indicate the Government has heeded some of the rural sector concerns.

"What farmer groups seek now is the opportunity for input to ensure the final regulations and National Policy Statement matches the intent of the policies.

"And if the regulations are shown to be flawed or impractical, the Government needs to be open to changing them."

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague saw the reforms as a big step forward in most areas of freshwater policy – but also felt they didn't deliver when it came to nitrate and phosphorus pollution.

Hague said the degradation of New Zealand waterways had reached a point where "urgent and dramatic" action was needed to turn the picture around.

Across the board, trends showed rivers were in a worrying state, but these varied depending on what measure is looked at.

Levels of E. coli - the notorious bacteria linked to animal or human faeces that can leave swimmers suffering vomiting, cramping, nausea and diarrhoea - aren't going up or down at most sites.

But, when compared with the relatively unspoiled waterways that flow through our native wilderness, levels are 22 times higher in towns and cities.

And they're nearly 10 times higher in the pastoral countryside that wraps around much of New Zealand's 180,000km of total river length.

Just as important - if not more so - are nitrogen and phosphorus, which come from livestock waste, fertiliser and eroded soil, as well as septic tanks and sewer systems.

If too much enters waterways - whether by leaching through the soil or being washed off roads and paddocks - algae can grow in large amounts.

This triggers a cascade of problems - notably decreased oxygen levels and reduced light - which can hurt or kill species, and fuel toxic blooms.

One recent Government stocktake showed that between 1994 and 2013 - a period that saw an explosion in cow numbers amid dairy's white gold rush - levels of nitrate-nitrogen in monitored rivers were getting worse (55 per cent) at more sites than were improving (28 per cent).

On the flip side, rates of dissolved reactive phosphorus were improving (42 per cent) at more sites than worsening (25 per cent).

When it comes to lakes, a recent five-year grading of 65 lakes using a catch-all trophic level index, showed 24 sites had good or very good scores, the same number had poor or very poor scores, and the rest were rated moderate.

All the while, three-quarters of our monitored native fish species are now nearing extinction.