By Jo Moir of RNZ

A government plan to protect New Zealand's wetlands and freshwater due today will affect farmers and developers, RNZ understands.

Environment Minister David Parker will today lay out the government's plan to stop the degradation of waterways and improve freshwater quality.

The discussion document will be released alongside the rewritten National Policy Statement and Environment Standards, which focus on improving water quality for rivers, lakes and wetlands within five years and fixing them within a generation.

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Wetlands - both coastal and inland - are estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year but less than 10 per cent of New Zealand's original wetlands remain.

New Zealand's wetlands are a valuable resource culturally and environmentally. Photo: RNZ Andrew Robertson
New Zealand's wetlands are a valuable resource culturally and environmentally. Photo: RNZ Andrew Robertson

They hold cultural significance for Māori, are habitats for many threatened species such as plants and fish and critically endangered birds.

In recent months the government has received reports from several interest groups: wide reaching Māori freshwater advisory group Kahui Wai Māori, set up by Mr Parker last year; the Freshwater Leaders' Group; the Science Technology Advisory Group; and the Regional Sector Water sub-group. They are all understood to be supportive of the government's goal of protecting the wetlands.

RNZ understands the new restrictions to task regional councils with pinpointing wetlands in their area, monitoring their health and setting out ways to protect them.

Draining, damming, diverting or disturbing wetlands is expected to be restricted, affecting any farmers not already actively protecting wetlands and putting a stop to any future land development there.

Mired in controversy: Winter grazing

The government will also roll out a raft of proposed changes to clean up the country's rivers and lakes today.

It has acknowledged that farmers have done a lot of work already, but some farming practices will be affected and those farmers who are not in line with the majority will be expected to catch up.

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Winter grazing, the practice of gathering stock on a small patch of land in bad weather to take the pressure off the rest of the farm and prevent it turning into bog, has been a sore point. Pictures of cows bunched up, lying and standing in deep mud have been circulating and there has been a big outcry to stop the practice.

Winter grazing has been a murky topic, bringing criticism of some farmers over animal welfare. Photo: Fish & Game New Zealand
Winter grazing has been a murky topic, bringing criticism of some farmers over animal welfare. Photo: Fish & Game New Zealand

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor, who will front the announcement with Mr Parker today, is on record saying there will always be mud with winter grazing and that's acceptable as long as it does not affect animal welfare.

Proposals are expected to address the impact winter grazing has on waterways, possibly restricting grazing too close to waterways.

Call to involve forestry in water cleanup

Hapū west of Whangārei say the government will have to make forestry companies clean up their mess, if it's serious about freshwater quality.

Sharon Kaipo from Parahaki marae said Mangakahia River was littered with forestry slash that forms dams, and full of silt from banks eroded by dodgy planting practice.

Sharon Kaipo points to debris in Mangakahia stream. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams
Sharon Kaipo points to debris in Mangakahia stream. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

She said mana whenua had tried in vain to get the forestry companies to take responsibility, but the community only had empty promises so far.

Mrs Kaipo said that if rivers were to be restored, those companies would have to be part of the effort.

She said the Mangakahia flows into Kaipara Harbour, which the government is keen to protect.

Because the major threat to the harbour is silt, restoration efforts must target foresters upstream - not just farmers - she said.

Water allocation in the 'next term' bucket

The interest groups have also been looking at ways to solve water allocation.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

It has becoming a burning issue for some Māori and is gaining even more traction after a Waitangi Tribunal report released last week said farmers were given special priority to water allocation over Māori, and called for a new scheme allocating water to iwi, hapū and Māori landowners.

As is so often the case with a coalition government, Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens all hold different views on allocation - in particular, proprietary rights over water.

This week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ruled out the government considering any reports on water allocation before the next election - forcefully kicking that particular can down the road.

The coalition agreement, at New Zealand First's request, sets out there will be no resource rentals for water in this term of Parliament, but does allow for the introduction of a royalty on exports of bottled water.

By ruling out doing anything on water allocation before the election, Ms Ardern is sticking to the coalition agreement, but is also sending a clear message to Māori - if you want a chance of resolution, vote for a Labour/Green coalition.

- RNZ