Monday, February 26, 2024

‘Urgent’ water policy reform in minister’s in-tray

Neal Wallace
Briefing on policy tells ministers top-down approach hasn’t worked.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Ministry for the Environment officials have told the government there are opportunities to simplify regulations on the primary sector’s use and management of land and freshwater.

The ministry’s briefing for incoming ministers states that for the past decade the government has used national direction and regulations to manage urban and rural water and land use, which farmers resisted claiming they were cumbersome and illogical.

Officials said those policies can be simplified.

The briefing says this top-down approach has had little impact.

“Climate change and the effect of existing land use and management practices – both urban and rural – are placing severe pressure on our freshwater and coastal environments,” the briefing says.

The coalition agreement is to replace the National Policy Statement for Freshwater and rebalance the objectives of the water quality agency, Te Mana o te Wai, to better reflect the interests of all water users.

The agreement is to also stop implementation of the new Significant Natural Areas policy while advice is sought to include its aims as part of the Resource Management Act reforms.

Officials said implementation of these policies has not always been considered in a strategic way.

Minister for the Environment Penny Simmonds faces “increasing urgent policy issues” on the allocation of freshwater resources, the brief states.

This includes overallocation and management of water within environmental limits along with Māori rights and interests in its management.

The new minister faces decisions on the role of freshwater farm plans to support farmers at farm and catchment levels and the need to roll out those plans throughout the country.

She will need to decide on how to achieve biodiversity goals and targets to which New Zealand recently committed by signing the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework for land and marine environments.

That international agreement sets a pathway to reach the global vision of a world living in harmony with nature by 2050 by committing parties to setting national targets to implement it.

It was signed late last year in Montreal as part of the 15th meeting of the conference of the Parties (COP-15) and follows four years of consultation and negotiations.

Other challenges awaiting the minister are the likely failure of NZ to meet its target of reducing net emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Officials have calculated that climate change means the agricultural drought frequency has increased at 15 of 30 monitored sites across the country.

Between 2002 and 2019 37,000 hectares of highly productive land was lost to residential housing. NZ has just 3.830 million hectares of this class of land.

Increased land intensification has degraded soils, with 80% of sites measured between 2014 and 2018 failing to meet targets for at least one of the seven soil indicators.

Between 2016 and 2020, officials state, 62% of 101 monitored lakes were in very poor health and the water quality at 84% of monitored rivers had median concentrations for at least one form of nitrogen and 25% had severe organic pollution or nutrient enrichment.

Over the same period, 66% of monitored river sites were not suitable for swimming and between 2014 and 2018, 68% of monitored groundwater sites failed the meet E coli drinking water standards on at least one occasion.

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