John Penno, who chaired the Freshwater Leaders Group which was involved in the initial stages of the policy’s development, says poor performing farmers must be made to improve their performance.
“People are very nervous about the way it is going to be policed and their ability to comply from a more rules-based system rather than an outcomes based system,” he said.
“Where I sit on it, as long as the rules are set so farmers who are slower to change, slower to move are being forced to catch up to best practice, then it is calibrated at the right level.”
Penno says regional and sector differences complicate the wider issue, but overall farmers are improving their practices, such as the fencing and planting waterways on dairy farms.
Winters in Southland and Otago makes stock grazing a challenge, but councils need a stick to make some farmers improve their compliance.
“We still see examples of bad practice, fortunately there is less, but regional councils need the ability to manage those who really aren’t operating at best practice.”
Penno says those farmers who are on the top of their game should have little to worry about with the new rules.
“But when you move to a rules-based system and when there is a strict interpretation of those rules, there will always be those unwittingly caught out or forced into applying for resource consent when it’s really not required,” he said.
“I would call for people to get on and develop very good farm environment plans that identify the risks, looking for things they need to look for and work with regional councils to get ahead of any imposition of any rules they don’t think are fair and equitable.
“These can be included in the farm environment plans to show how they are managing the risk.”
There was no way of avoiding the imposition of greater compliance and higher costs, but he hopes councils will find a sensible and pragmatic way to implement and manage those new rules.
“I would like to think farmers will be able to apply for long-term consent that signs off good practice, follows an extremely straightforward process and they should be comfortable being audited against that process.”
Most farmers are being let down by a few, and change has to happen.
“If the farmers who are not following best practice don’t change now, it will cost all of us more in the future,” he said.
“The cost of mitigating market responses and turning around damage done today, will fall on all parties.”
Penno says poor performing farmers will only improve when confronted with a regulatory framework.
These regulations have to be centrally managed and a downside of that is that they are set in Wellington making them difficult to apply nationally.
“That is where we are going to have to work within our communities and with individual councils as rules are rolled out and applied to ensure common sense prevails,” he said.
Those doing the right things should not be fearful.
“I am confident that the system will not see those people penalised unduly. The people who will be difficult will be those who have not kept up or caught up with best practice,” he said.
The freshwater changes do not single out farmers but also urban and forestry.
“Our group argued, not enough to be fair, that the outcome of the rules should be the same if you are an urban environment managing a water course or whether you are a forestry company managing water,” he said.
“It should not signal out any particular group.”