Federated Farmers remains actively involved in the Land and Water Forum (LaWF), being a signatory to the most recent report from the Government. This declaration however is conditional and under review as the Federation considers the implications for farmers writes CATHY BEGLEY

The debate on what is essentially our most valuable resource -- water -- is back on the agenda with the Government releasing their much anticipated LaWF report.

It contains a number of recommendations, which if enacted will have significant implications for farmers throughout the nation.

The fourth LaWF report - the first initiated in 2009 as an integral part of the Government's so called 'fresh start for fresh water commitments', has alarmed Federated Farmers with some of the recommendations.

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While they appear just proposals, in reality they carry a lot of weight as central government sees LaWF as the conduit towards managing the nation's freshwater resources.

The report is the culmination of six months of work.

It provides advice to central government on how to maximise the economic benefit of freshwater while managing within limits for both water quality and quantity alongside advice on regulatory requirements to exclude stock from waterways.

Central government and councils are expected to follow some of the recommendations contained within this recent report.

The vast majority of proposals will provide additional support and underpin actions that primary sector organisations are already undertaking, supporting farmers with implementing practical on-farm and catchment wide solutions.

However, the proposed management around stock exclusion from waterways could have the biggest impact.

These guidelines go beyond the existing Sustainable Dairy Accord exclusions for dairy cattle on milking platforms from defined waterways by 2017, and from run off blocks owned by the dairy farmer by 2020.

Deer, pigs and other cattle are now also in the picture with a range of exclusion conditions under consideration.

Federated Farmers also have reservations relating to iwi rights and interests - not that they were included but how they might be interpreted by local councils.

The draft report suggests potential options around this but would rather they were not interpreted as giving specific direction to the Government.

There is concern that some local regions may 'pre-empt negotiations' between iwi and central government by unreasonably locking up water creating a gridlock on its management.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of councils nationwide have or will be embarking upon water management plans.

These planning processes, as some farmers will be aware, are complex, time and resource consuming, and above all, technically challenging.

However, Federated Farmers policy team and Team Water are ideally skilled and ready to provide a strong voice and support to our provinces and members from the start of the process through to the implementation of plans.

The Federation's experience is that each stage of the planning process has unique challenges.

At the beginning, challenges are around ensuring there is sufficient robust information to clearly define the 'problem' to be addressed by the water plan and the farmers' voice is adequately represented around the 'table'.

During the plan drafting and statutory process, the challenges are making sure the plan fully explores all mechanism available to address the problem (regulatory and non regulatory).

We want to ensure those proposals are not constraining their implementation which would have a significant, negative impact upon farming from an economic, diversification, flexibility or development perspective.

Finally, and often overlooked, is the implementation stage. This arises with its own respective set of challenges, mainly around how the policy and rule framework of the plan should pan out.

This is underestimated by the plan drafters for two main reasons. During this stage the unintended consequences of the policy and rule framework become obvious.

Second, plan drafters often assume their plan will be implemented as they had intended it to be. Every region at plan implementation level is grappling with such issues, whether it be Horizons, Otago or Canterbury.

Difficulties are wide-ranging and include the use of Overseer, consent processes, confusion or uncertainty around definitions or rules, enforcement issues, resourcing and overall workability at a practical level.

This final process is when members become fully aware of the extent of the ramifications set out in a respective water plan.

alarm bells ringing

CASE STUDY
Southland -- holding the line or farming by consent?

It seems Southland farmers have been lulled into a false sense of security.

After previous high-level public meetings on the region's proposed future Water and Land plan, Environment Southland has publicly disclosed its intentions and farmers could be facing the prospect of farming by consent.

While the draft plan was described by the council as an attempt to 'hold the water quality line' until catchment limit-setting occurred, in reality it opened the doors for an onerous rule-based regulatory framework.

Most concerning to Federated Farmers was the potential for the plan to severely limit or prevent development, innovation, and flexibility within the agricultural industry.

Farming is at the mercy of social, environmental, economic, and regulatory changes, and the ability to pull through any challenging times is dependant on there being the necessary flexibility to adapt.

With such high stakes on the table, it was disappointing the draft plan jumped the gun and pre-empted the rigorous economic analysis of the proposals that the council had committed to complete in 2017, long after the economic effects of the plan would have begun to bite.

The physiographic work the Plan is based upon is new and innovative, but it was also incomplete at the time the draft Plan was released.

In Federated Farmers view, the council is prematurely using that incomplete work to lock all of Southland into a resource consent regime, which didn't correlate to the hot spots where water quality is an issue.

It's still not clear what the proposed expansive, and incredibly expensive, regulatory framework will achieve.

What is apparent though is that it goes further than 'holding the line', and it creates a system of winners and losers, hastily picked based on where people live, rather than what they do and what their environmental effects actually are.

Federated Farmers staff and executive have been working intensively on the draft plan over the past few months and will continue well into the future.

What has become clear in the regions where water plans have been through council and appeal processes is the work doesn't stop once the final ink on the plan is dry.

The catchment limit setting processes and the implementation of all these plans is also crucial. If the plan and rules aren't practical, affordable and workable, and if the council isn't taking a collaborative open working approach with stakeholders, it simply won't work.

Southland farmers want rivers and lakes to be clean and healthy for future generations, and to make the biggest difference, they need to be involved in the discussions on expected outcomes, costs and timeframes in any water plan proposal.

We are hopeful that the messages that have been sent loud and clear back to the council from the primary sector will be listened to as we move towards the next step in the process.

So the hard work really begins now. We'll continue to ask the hard questions about the evidence-base for all proposed options, and will work with the council and other stakeholders as they look to where to from here.