Thursday, February 22, 2024

Freshwater review high on government list

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Two-year process to replace policy ‘will include a robust and full consultation process’.
BLNZ chair Kate Acland says the report ‘reinforces the message that we have been giving, that we need to talk about warming effect’. Photo: Clare Toia-Bailey
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A rash of pre-Christmas legislation slashing includes the National Policy Statement  on Freshwater Management, which is going up for a revisit as other farming related legislation is also targeted.

Environment Minister Penny Simmonds described the existing NPS as complex and expensive to implement, and Associate Minister for the Environment Andrew Hoggard said work will begin immediately on replacing it.

“This process is expected to take between 18-24 months and will include a robust and full consultation process with all stakeholders including iwi and the public,” he said. 

Other legislation bound for the chopping block includes the ute tax, electric vehicle subsidies and the controversial Three Waters plans. 

The government has announced it will extend the deadline for regional councils to notify their new freshwater plans, pushing this out to December 31 2027, to line up with the new NPS once it is revealed.

The NPS’s efforts to establish bottom-line levels for water quality has had a contentious past. Its release in 2020 lacked any firm number for nitrogen, one of the key nutrient pollutants that the regulations were intended to target. 

Councils were required to at least maintain N levels at their current state and improve if the community chose to do so, and to set targeted states to work towards. 

Some nitrogen rules did change, including lowering nitrate toxicity from 6.9mg per litre to 2.4mg/L to help protect waterway ecosystems. However, in some catchments farmers are already required to farm below these levels, according to targets set under earlier council catchment plans.

The decision to revisit the freshwater NPS has been welcomed by Beef + Lamb New Zealand. 

Chair Kate Acland said it is important to note the NPS has not been repealed, but said a review is a move in the right direction.

She said the complexity of the rules, and the way they often are not fit for purpose in many catchments,  makes a revisit essential.

She also welcomed having the deadlines for it to be included in regional council plans pushed out to late 2027.

She was, however, concerned about to what extent regional councils will push on with their water quality plans, regardless of the NPS review.

“We are not sure that what has been announced will achieve that and will be watching this closely. Farmers need certainty and if those regional processes don’t stop, further measures will be needed to achieve that.”

Dairy farmers also welcomed the announcement. 

DairyNZ GM for sustainable dairying Dr Dave Burger said as it stands the NPS is overly complex and includes unachievable timeframes for implementing change.

“We are pleased to see the government giving regional councils more time to develop fair, achievable regulations,” he said.

Federated Farmers freshwater spokesperson Colin Hurst said farmers are expecting to see fair, pragmatic and affordable rules that will support their efforts to improve water quality. 

He said in reality, despite the government’s intent to revisit the NPS, the changes proposed will do little to relieve pressures they are under now, driven by tough bottom lines for nitrogen, phosphate, E coli and sediment.

“Simply pushing out the dates for implementation probably won’t be enough to have councils stop work on this, because the NPS requires councils to give effect to the requirements of the regulations ‘as soon as practicable’.”

At a council level, Otago Regional Council (ORC) intends to meet with Simmonds to discuss the impact for the region, in light of water policies already in play there.

“Given Otago’s work to date and intent to notify a new plan in June 2024, it is critical now because our council and wider community desperately need certainty about any future changes and how they impact our plan process,” ORC chair Gretchen Robertson said.

Waikato Regional Council is continuing to push on with Plan Change 1, which intends to reduce the amount of contaminants entering Waikato River and came into being prior to the NPS. At present this remains in the Environment Court.

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