Federated Farmers says sweeping new rules proposed to clean up the country's waterways will force some out of the dairy industry. But Government has called the claim "ridiculous" and says plenty in the farming sector are already on board with a need for urgent change.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor and Environment Minister David Parker on Thursday unveiled new proposals for a swathe of changes intended to clean up New Zealand's rivers, streams and lakes.

The shake-up, Parker said, was the biggest to the standards since the introduction of the Resource Management Act nearly three decades ago and aimed at improving conditions within five years and getting waterways healthy in a generation.

"If we don't fix things now they will only get worse and will be more expensive to fix," he said.

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Much of the debate about river quality has centred on the effects of nitrates coming from growing and intensifying dairy farming in recent decades - and, in particular, livestock waste and fertiliser adding nitrate into waterways, along with pollution from sewage and urban growth.

The 19 proposals outlined on Thursday include new rules that will affect both country and city.

But in one of the most significant changes, the Government plans to from June, 2020 restrict further intensification of rural land.

It would mean dairy conversions over 10ha or irrigation schemes would only go ahead if they could prove they wouldn't increase pollution, likely putting a brake on some development.

Environment Minister David Parker says those who deny there's a growing problem have their
Environment Minister David Parker says those who deny there's a growing problem have their "head in the silt". Photo / Mark Mitchell

The restrictions would stay in place until at least 2025, by when regional councils would have new rules in place based on a new "National Policy Statement" on freshwater.

Other changes farmers may face include:

• Requirements for individual farm plans that consider water quality

• An interim nitrogen cap for waterways in some regions

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• Stricter rules to keep stock away from waterways

• New restrictions for winter grazing, feedlots and stock holding areas; and

• Protections designed to stop development on wetlands.

The recommendations would also require councils around the country to eventually set significantly tougher rules around nutrients in waterways.

The technical group advising the Government said fewer than half of the country's 16 regional councils had set limits in catchments using current rules, and that the existing "bottom lines" weren't good enough.

But some of the changes will come at a price to farmers. Fencing along waterways alone is expected to cost $600 million over the next decade, among a series of other costs.

Federated Farmers said the proposals were unnecessarily stringent and "throwing farmers under the tractor", arguing some of the requirements would see parts of New Zealand have to reduce their nitrogen levels by up to 80 per cent.

"It becomes very hard to continue economically farming animals or growing vegetables under a regime like this," environment and water spokesperson Chris Allen said.

"The long-term targets for nitrogen reduction, are effectively unachievable in some parts of the country, and will end pastoral farming in these areas."

Government ministers say not fixing the problem would only make it more expensive to fix down the line. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Government ministers say not fixing the problem would only make it more expensive to fix down the line. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Farmers wanted to improve water quality and were already doing significant work in the area, he said.

The National Party's agriculture spokesman, Todd Muller, called the announcement a "gut punch" to rural New Zealand.

"These proposals will put the shackles on our farmers' ability to innovate and will heap costs onto a sector that is already facing historically low confidence," he said.

"Farmers have put their shoulders to the wheel and put in the hard yards for our water quality, with dairy farmers fencing off over 98 per cent of waterways and spending over $1 billion in environmental investment over the last five years."

But dairy giant Fonterra said it supported the Government's goals and would help farmers achieve them.

"Already, 23 per cent of Fonterra farms have Farm Environment Plans – that's up from 12 per cent last year," its director of sustainability, Carolyn Mortland, said.

Addressing the concerns, O'Connor said he had sympathy that many farmers were already struggling.

But he said claims dairy farmers would be driven out of parts of the country, or that the goals were unachievable were "ridiculous".

Farming operations around the country were already managing to make a profit while already doing what the Government was proposing, he said.

"There are many, many farmers out there who are wanting to get guidelines from us, who want to move forward on this," he said.

"We won't see farmers closing down because of this. But we appreciate that at the moment farmers are under pressure for a number of reasons ... That's why we want to work through these costs."

The Government in the May Budget included a $229 million package to help fund the transition.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, too, played down suggestions farmers were opposed and said many would disagree with Federated Farmers.

"What's being announced is a recognition that there is some fantastic practice being modelled by farmers in New Zealand," she said.

"What we need to do is lift everyone to those standards."

The rules had been developed in consultation with the rural community, she said.

The proposals also include tougher new standards set for wastewater and popular swimming spots.

"We have to acknowledge there are a range of reasons why we have the level of water quality issues that we have now," Ardern said.

"And that does include what's happening in our urban environments as well."

Parker, meanwhile, rejected an Opposition suggestion some measures were showing water quality had been improving.

"They've got their head in the silt," he said.

Environmental lobby group Fish & Game said the proposals had potential but that some options put up could fall short.

"The focus on ecosystem health is long overdue, as are the new proposed planning processes that should force councils to change how they manage water," its chief, Martin Taylor, said.

"However, we have concerns regarding a number of bad options around industry-set standards and enforcement. These need to be rejected.

"The reality is that some intensive dairying operations are heavy polluters who do not want strong, mandatory rules because they want to maximise profit margins."

The Government says research has shown more than 80 per cent of New Zealanders want action to improve water quality, and Fish and Game says a Colmar Brunton survey it commissioned found 77 per cent were very concerned about pollution of rivers and lakes.

Consultation on the changes will begin in September and go to October 17, with Cabinet to sign off on any final decisions.