“And I personally have no problem with that,” she said.
But care would be needed to ensure the limits reflected the part of the problem each sector was contributing, that they were sensible and practical, and were delivered over a reasonable timeframe.
A higher-quality debate was also needed at central and local government level before limits were set.
Adams called for a better understanding of what was contributing to pollution at what stage and in what parts; an understanding of what could be done to lift the bar to best operating practices; and an understanding of the timeframes in which communities could expect to see differences in water quality.
She had read a report suggesting that in some areas around Rotorua, for example, all farming in the catchment could be shut down and there wouldn’t be a demonstrable improvement in the water quality until 2100.
“But I’ll bet you if you talk to the community there they wouldn’t understand that.”
Her address to the federation came just a week after the Land and Water Forum issued its latest report.
It helped that she introduced herself as MP for the electorate of Selwyn, where she and her husband had a sheep and cropping farm, and that she advised the council as a fellow farmer on how to deal with improving farmers’ image.
The forum is made up of primary industry representatives, including Fonterra, DairyNZ and Federated Farmers, environmental and recreational non-government organisations, iwi and other organisations with an interest in freshwater and land management. Its work resulted last year in the Government launching a package of water policy initiatives, including the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, which provides central government direction to regional councils, a $35 million Irrigation Acceleration Fund, and the $15m Freshwater Clean-up Fund.
A forum report in April advised on setting limits for water quality and quantity and improvements to decision-making. The latest report provided advice on how to manage limits, including allocation of freshwater resources, and additional tools to manage the effects of land use on water.
“My view is we have to do it better,” Adams said. She said she spoke as a farmer, as an irrigator, and someone who wanted to see the economy grow, but wearing the environment hat for best protecting our resources.
“We have to push back hard against the fallacy that water quality is all to be landed at the feet of farmers,” she said.
And she empathised with dairy farmers.
“One of the things that annoys me is the assumption that the debate around water and how we manage it is a debate around how much dairying we want,” she said.
Many critics failed to grasp that irrigation was as important to arable farmers, sheep and beef farmers, horticulturalists and winegrowers. She welcomed a debate around the sustainability of intensive dairying, but said that was not the same thing as the water debate and we needed to separate those things in people’s minds so they understood.
Farming certainly had a big part to play, and many of the issues related to poor farming practices.
“But it is in no way the only issue to do with water quality.”
She made plain she had local authorities in her sights, too. She didn’t care if a council had a resource consent to pump effluent into waterways.
“It doesn’t change the water quality.”
The starting point to water-management reforms must be a much better understanding of contamination sources in waterways, where they were coming from and what could and couldn’t be managed, she said. Without a clear picture, it was difficult to have sensible discussion around what farmers could be expected to do on their properties.
“So we have to get all that information in place and we have to get the public understanding it, but we also have to start showing farming as being very serious about water management.”
The public mood would be weighed by the few farmers who let the side down and all would be tarred by the same brush.
“So we do have to be as hard on our own sector as anyone is, because the sector will be judged by the lowest common denominator.”
On the setting of quality limits, Adams said central government had for years been far too hands-off.
However, expecting local councils to handle the issue without help from the centre was not a sensible approach, as was becoming apparent in variable approaches around the country.
On what the Government might do with the forum’s recommendations, Adams said: “I’m not going to continue to see our water quality deteriorate, but nor am I going to rip the guts out of our productive sector.
“So there is going to be a framework, there are going to be some on-farm changes, but we have to do it in a way that makes sense for both of those objectives.”
When it came to limits on water quantities, Adams told farmers they had to convince wider New Zealand they were using water responsibly and well.
“We have to show we are on a path to doing this better. We have to show we are taking water quality seriously, or we will never get widespread buy-in to continual development of agricultural productivity and continuous use of our water resource.”
Federation president Bruce Wills thanked Adams for being “refreshingly pragmatic”.
Dairy industry and environmental leaders by then had welcomed the forum’s latest recommendations.
Ian Mackenzie, the federation’s water and environment spokesman, said: “We know the way we farm will need to change.”
But the federation took issue with some regional councils that were rushing to set limits, he said.
“This fails to inform or involve the community in what will affect jobs, a community’s standard of living, or for that matter its make-up.”
Mackenzie took issue, too, with councils that believed they should be exempted because they could not achieve limit objectives.
DairyNZ chair John Luxton said the key to setting and managing water quality limits was collaborative decision-making at a catchment level and the final forum’s report supported that.
“That is how we will make a difference to water quality – catchment by catchment across the country,” he said.
Communities understood that, because people could relate any impact to the place where they lived and worked and their local waterway. So they would take some ownership of the actions, he said.
Fonterra managing director, cooperative affairs, Todd Muller said the forum’s report recommended a much-improved framework for the sustainable management of water, which took into account the need for the productivity and economic growth that was important to NZ’s future.
Fonterra supported the goals of combined decision making in catchments and continued improvement in water quality through better management practices. It also supported the establishment of better-defined rights around the taking and using of water within set limits.
And it supported the forum’s view that there was room for improvement in catchment-based regional planning, particularly processes that traditionally floated draft plans for consultation prior to them becoming locked into formalised processes.