The rural community turned out in force to a Ministry for the Environment meeting in Ashburton earlier this month to hear discussion on the Government's Essential Freshwater proposal and to voice their concerns.

About 350 people turned up to Hotel Ashburton to hear Government representatives - the Ministry for the Environment's Martin Workman and Amanda Moran and the Ministry for Primary Industries' Charlotte Denny - outline the plan to improve water quality nationwide and how to protect productive land.

It was a chance for the rural people to express their opinions on the discussion document, which is out for consultation, and to encourage them to put in a submission on the document via the Ministry for the Environment website.

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The Ashburton meeting was the first of a series of primary sector meetings nationwide.

Those attending, who included many of the district's farmers, industry representatives and financial lenders, did not hold back voicing their concerns.

Following an overview of the proposal, questions raised included the accuracy of the science being used, how the 1 per cent dissolved inorganic nitrogen level was unrealistic, how this regulation would tie in with a myriad of other regulations already in place, whether economic modelling had been done and whether consideration was given to the effects of any regulation on people, future generations and their communities.

The Essential Freshwater plan includes some proposals which will affect not just the rural community, but also those living in town and cities.

Staff from the Ministries for the Environment and Primary Industries fronted up to talk about the issues and hear questions and concerns.

That information was recorded as feedback to form part of the Ministry for the Environment's consultation consideration.

Beef + LambNZ, DairyNZ and Federated Farmers also took the opportunity to meet farmers to talk about the issues and environmental issues facing the sector following the meeting.

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Ministry for the Environment deputy secretary Amanda Moran said getting the right balance between the environment and the economy was important, and was signalled by the large turnout.

She acknowledged the work and innovation already done in the rural sector, but said more was needed in some areas, and others needed support to improve.

''Getting these things right now is crucial. The decisions we make today impact on generations to come, just as the decisions that have been already made by others before us are having an impact on us now,'' she said.

''We want to make sure that the work we are doing is made on robust science and a healthy understanding of what the impacts are in the community.''

The Environment Aotearoa report, released in April this year, outlined environmental challenges nationwide, and she believed it was unlikely anyone disagreed with the need to look after the environment, but the ''questions were how, and how fast''.

Discussions were also being had on hazardous substances, urban development and work in the ''waste space''.

Productive land protection

Denny, MPI director of land, water and climate, said there was a need to protect highly productive land nationwide.

''Around 14 per cent of New Zealand's farm land is categorised as highly productive, which means it contains the best soil for growing a range of fruits, vegetables or fibre or pasture for livestock,'' she said.

Councils across the country had a variety of ways to protect this land, but there was no clarity on how to protect them within the Resource Management Act framework.

There was ''a duty to cherish and protect it for future generations'', not only for its significant economic benefits including employment for surrounding communities, but also for its value to New Zealand's primary sector.

Nationwide between 1990 and 2008, 29 per cent of new urban areas had infringed on land considered highly productive for primary production.

And by 2011 10 per cent of highly productive land had already been fragmented to make way for rural lifestyle developments.

Once converted to urban use, such land was ''highly unlikely'' to move back into primary production, and there were often issues for neighbouring farm properties, such as complaints about spraying or heavy machinery noise, a phenomenon known as ''reverse sensitivity''.

She said the consultation asked whether there were other problems facing highly productive land.

Three solutions were proposed to help regional councils gain a better knowledge about what was happening with land consistency: recognition of the rates and benefits of highly productive land; maintaining highly productive land for future generations; and providing protection from inappropriate subdivision or development.

She said timeframes included those needing immediate effect, such as resource consent applications, but others would take the councils time to include in long-term planning documents.

Freshwater

Water has been put at the centre of decision-making by the Government, the aim being to see a material improvement in water quality in five years and healthier waterways in a generation.

Workman, Ministry for the Environment director of water, said ''water is important to our wellbeing as people, for our economy and our environment''.

''We need to be putting water at the front of all our decisions that we're making around how we are managing our land and our water resources.''

Some proposals included changes to the national policy statement, national environmental statement, proposals targeted at urban water issues such as wastewater management, storm water and protection of drinking water sources.

Urban water issues were also raised.

''We've heard loud and clear that it's not just about rural, and community, and blaming farmers. This is not about giving farmers a kick in the guts.

''It's looking for all New Zealanders to be doing their bit to achieve water quality that we aspire to as a country,'' Workman said.

Nationwide, there were some wastewater schemes which were not adequate, such as in Auckland, and would likely cost millions, or billions, of dollars to improve.

''Urban's got its problems - urban waterways are the most polluted in this country and we need to be fixing them up.''

He said 16 freshwater scientists, and a freshwater leaders group, determined ideal waterways would include less sediment, reducing E. coli and harmful pathogens and lowering levels of nitrogen in waterways to a bottom line of 1mg of dissolving inorganic nitrogen, to ensure fish, insects and bugs in waterways remained healthy enough to reproduce.

It was about getting a plan in place with objectives which were expected to take decades to achieve.

''The nitrogen bottom line, [is] expected to take decades to achieve. It isn't something that is going to be achieved overnight or by 2025. In many places it's going to take a lot longer.''

In some places there would be big changes and it might require technology over decades to come up with solutions, he said.

For farmers and growers in the short term, it meant farm plans were needed by 2025 to understand and manage environmental risks.

Also necessary were limits on intensification of land use (such as converting to dairy), the exclusion of stock from waterways more than 1m wide and plans to exclude stock from smaller waterways.

But there are also proposals that applied to specific locations and activities, such as restrictions on draining wetlands, infilling streams, winter grazing, resource consents for feedlots, stock-holding areas and the reporting of large water use (such as irrigation) using telemetry, and in high-nitrate/nitrogen catchments with no existing rules.

Compensation was unlikely to help farmers with changes needed for the proposals, but some support would be available.

It would come in the form of $229 million from the Government to support farmers to make the necessary changes to land use.

Also included would be extension services, and tools to help measure, innovate and problem-solve.

Freshwater leaders group members Allen Lim, a horticulturist, and Hugh Logan, a former Land and Water Forum chairman and Lincoln University lecturer, were involved in the group backing the science behind the decision-making.

Logan said the input was reflected in the proposals, but did not include all recommendations.

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''I don't think there is any disagreement about the high level of objectives [in the proposals] of what is contained here.''

''New Zealanders say they want healthy fresh water, I would be very surprised if there is anyone ... who disagrees with that. Not only is it part of our social and cultural heritage but for anyone who's involved in farming it's one of our important competitive advantages.''

''The question lies, and the devil lies, in the detail.''

He said a range of the proposals in the package had been on the table for the past 15 years; ''they are not new''.

''The previous government had indicated it was going to look at some form of new nationally-based standards and regulations before the last election.''

He said the Land and Water Forum over the past two years had also recognised a need for national standards for certain high-risk land use activities, which the proposals reflected.

But there were some areas of debate which were going to flow through in the consultation period, such as new standards on sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous.

''There is a lot in here to discuss ... I would encourage you all to look at the details of this and not only look just at the core Government proposal but look at the reports of the advisory groups and the detail that's in there,'' he said.

Submissions officially close on October 17 at 5pm, but late submissions will be received until October 31.