Thursday, April 25, 2024

Councils weigh impact of Overseer review

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Regional councils and the legislative machine behind Overseer have stalled with the release of a report challenging the system’s validity as a tool for measuring nutrient losses. Past Environment Court and regulator decisions have endorsed the use of the system in setting nutrient limits in regional catchments.
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Regional councils and the legislative machine behind Overseer have stalled with the release of a report challenging the system’s validity as a tool for measuring nutrient losses.

Past Environment Court and regulator decisions have endorsed the use of the system in setting nutrient limits in regional catchments. 

Only last year a paper to Overseer’s peer review panel stated “as a general principle regional plan provisions and resource consent conditions should be designed in a way that is consistent with Overseer’s assumptions and limitations”.

But last week’s decision has councils backpedalling, with policymakers assessing where it leaves major water quality decisions.

These include the requirement for farmers to complete farm environment plans (FEPs) and stalls Environment Court hearings on significant regional plan changes.

It also throws into question farmers’ ability to use Overseer to assess greenhouse gases (GHG) by the end of next year. This is required by the He Waka Eke Noa industry agreement with the Government.

Canterbury, Waikato, Hawke’s Bay and Horizons are catchments most immediately and deeply affected, all having Overseer nutrient limitations enshrined in their regional plans.

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chief executive James Palmer says the most immediate impact for his council is the review’s effect upon council’s assessment of Tukituki land-use consent applications.

He says these will now need to be revised, based on Overseer’s future pathway.

The Government has given the system a year to continue running as it is, while improvements or alternatives are assessed.

“For us this means we will continue to implement our Tukituki plan as the law requires us to and farmers can still use Overseer to collate and record farm data,” Palmer said.

“We know there are water quality problems in the Tukituki catchment and farmers are making changes and working constructively with the council to address this. It is important that this work continues.”

Farmers still need to submit Tukituki land-use consent applications and updated FEPs.

In Canterbury, the regional council has been forced to hit the “pause” button on FEP audits while the future of Overseer is determined.

The council has made the plans a high priority and it wanted to see their formulation reinstated as soon as possible.

Environment Canterbury (ECan) chief executive Stefanie Rixecker says Overseer is used extensively both for modelling and in the regulatory framework.

“We now need to take the time to consider the review so we can be clear about how these processes may be impacted,” Rixecker said.

The council has also been forced to seek an extension of time from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) on deciding to adopt both PC7 of the Land and Water Regional Plan and PC2 for the Waimakariri River regional plan.

The region’s multiple irrigation schemes also have nutrient allowances tied to Overseer. These are to remain subject to a “robust” approach to ensure the effects of irrigated land use will remain well-managed.

In Waikato, Overseer is integral in regulations around both the Taupō catchment’s nitrogen management plan and Healthy Rivers PC1 and also used to inform consent.

Overseer was used in PC1 to determine farms’ nitrogen leaching loss rates and in turn the applicability of rules and nitrogen loss management.

At present, PC1 is under appeal in the Environment Court and the council estimates it will take two months to determine the impact of the Overseer review on this appeal. It intends to contact appellants with developments.

In a written outline of its intentions, the council noted Overseer’s shortcomings were not new and its variability has been widely understood and recognised. This is why applicants can sometimes be required to also supply other data and evidence.

Like all councils, Waikato also has a statutory obligation to continue applying its regional plan rules and it will continue to assess new applications against the plan and the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater.

Horizons also has Overseer embedded in nutrient regulations under PC2.

This too is also under appeal at the Environment Court and the council intends to work through the issues the review raises in coming weeks.

Environment Southland chief executive Rob Phillips says while Overseer is used in several ways in Southland for the land and water plan, it is not the only tool used to manage nutrient losses.

“Unlike other councils, Environment Southland has not used Overseer in our proposed water and land plan to identify a target to reach. Rather, it has been used to help chart a direction of travel in improving our freshwater,” Phillips said.

Setting a nutrient budget has to be completed using Overseer or “an alternative model”.

He says the council is considering the review and preparing guidance for farmers with FEPs and applying for consents.

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