Monday, February 26, 2024

Work on water reform slows to a trickle

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With existing plans due to be scrapped, councils await direction from government.
Rural groups see many benefits from learning more about their waterways, said the Environmental Protection Authority’s Paula Knaap.
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By Neal Wallace and Gerald Piddock

Regional councils have slowed work on freshwater policy development and implementation as they await direction from the new government.

In accordance with the coalition agreement between ACT and the National Party, before Christmas the government announced the 2020 National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FW) will be replaced, a process that will take 18 to 24 months.

Councils were also given an extra three years, to December 31 2027, to notify changes to freshwater policy.

“The existing NPS-FW has become extremely complex and expensive to implement and will not deliver the outcomes for freshwater that New Zealanders expect,” Environment Minister Penny Simmonds said at the time.

Councils spoken to have curtailed some work but are continuing to develop aspects of NPS-FW policy.

In Waikato, freshwater farm plan regulations started rolling out in middle and upper Waikato as well as the West Coast-South areas from January 1.

This means farmers who have 20ha of land in pastoral or arable use, 5ha or more in horticultural use, or any combination of these land uses equal to or greater than 20ha, will need to develop a freshwater farm plan within 18 months.

Waikato Regional Council’s primary industry support and engagement manager, Tracy Nelson, said they are waiting to see what the new government unveils. 

“We know that the new government is intending to make changes to freshwater farm plans so they are more pragmatic and cost effective. Like everyone, we’re waiting to see what that looks like.

“Until then, we are continuing forward to help farmers.”

Nelson said the council is also waiting on the Environment Court decision on Plan Change 1, which is expected to be released sometime early this year.

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council policy and regulation manager Katrina Brunton said the council is working with its community on their visions, values and aspirations so it can develop freshwater plans by the 2027 deadline.

“Horizons is currently re-assessing our work programme in light of government announcements,” council chief executive Michael McCartney said.

“It is likely that some work will be able to continue, however other aspects may pause until there is clarity around direction from central government and we have extended our current round of engagement to provide more time for community feedback.”

He said farmers have requested thorough consultation, which the new 2027 deadline will enable.

“What is important is that we take time to get the new policy right.”

Consultation on freshwater quality targets, part of the council’s One Plan, is underway. That will be followed by analysis of the economic and social impacts of meeting those targets.

McCartney said the council is aware the impact the freshwater policy may have on the primary sector.

Greater Wellington Regional Council chair Daran Ponter said the council is consulting on community expectations for freshwater and how to achieve them.

Pending changes to the NPS-FW will have implications for councils.

He wants the new regulations to provide greater alignment with other national policy statements and national issues, such as climate change.

Environment Canterbury is continuing work to notify its regional plan.

Otago Regional Council chair Gretchen Robertson said despite waiting for government guidance, it still aims to notify its new Land and Water Plan by June 30 this year.

Once the government provides the detail, the council will assess its work to date and decide the next stages of the process. 

Environment Southland chair Nicol Horrell said while the national regulatory framework and timeframe will change, his council is looking for a Southland solution that is pragmatic and tailored to the region and its communities.

“Environment Southland shares our communities’ concerns about farmer wellbeing in light of the national economic situation and regulation.

“We are committed to developing and implementing a Southland solution to this challenge and providing industry and communities with levels of certainty.”

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