Essential freshwater. Essential changes?

The Minister for the Environment and Minister for Agriculture have released a freshwater work programme called Essential Freshwater: Healthy Water, Fairly Allocated that is designed to get results before the next election.  The freshwater programme sets out the Government’s three main objectives:

  • stopping further degradation and loss of New Zealand’s freshwater resources, waterways and ecosystems;
  • reversing past damage; and
  • addressing water allocation issues.

At the same time, the Minister for the Environment and Minister for Māori Crown Relations have announced a new approach to the Crown / Māori Relationship for Freshwater. The reboot on the Crown / Māori relationship will proceed on the basis of a commitment to water quality and ecosystem health, encapsulated in the concept of Te Mana o Te Wai. The Government anticipates discussions on a catchment-by-catchment basis and has indicated that any change to existing allocation methods needs to be achieved in a way and at a pace that takes into account the interests of existing users and the public interest in the optimal use of water.

The Freshwater Programme includes six work streams, which we review below.

Catchments will be assessed to identify and protect catchments ‘at risk’

The quickest project builds on the Land and Water Forum recommendations to identify ‘at risk’ catchments and considering possible interventions to ensure that they are not degraded further.  This is likely to cause regional councils and communities to identify particular problem areas that will benefit from a special work programme.  A report with recommendations on potential interventions will be presented to the Government by the end of this year.

The Government will amend the National Policy Statement for Freshwater (Freshwater NPS)

The Freshwater NPS will be amended.  This was part of the Labour party’s pre-election promises.  The intention is to have an NPS similar to that which was recommended in 2008 by Judge David Sheppard – more environmental bottom lines.  The Government wants to use it to provide greater direction on how to set limits on resource use, to provide for eco-system health, to protect wetlands and sensitive downstream environments, and to resolve exceptions to national bottom lines.

Public consultation on the Freshwater NPS will be held in early 2019.  The amended Freshwater NPS will be in force in 2020.

The Government will introduce a new National Environmental Standard for Freshwater Management (Freshwater NES)

The Government wants to use a Freshwater NES to deliver clear and specific direction especially in areas where rapid action is required.

The Government has identified that it may prohibit activities and provide for the review of existing resource consents.  It may also include rules to provide direction on nutrient allocation, intensive winter grazing, hill country cropping and feedlots and mechanisms for managing intensification, and avoiding wetland draining and the loss of urban streams.

Public consultation on the Freshwater NES will be in early 2019.  The Freshwater NES will be in force in 2020.

The Government intends to amend the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) “in the short term”

It has been long signalled that the Government wishes to make some narrow amendments to the RMA to “reduce the complexity, improve certainty, and introduce public participation”.  The Freshwater Programme foreshadows that these amendments will enable regional councils to review consents so that water quality standards can be implemented more efficiently and also strengthen environmental compliance tools.

The Amendment Bill is due to be introduced in to Parliament later in 2018 or early 2019.  The Government expects it to be passed in 2019.

The Government proposes an allocation model of nutrient discharges and future proofing framework for freshwater policy

The Government’s final two work streams address medium to long-term issues that will be discussed over the next two years.  First, the Government wants to work with a network of advisors to create options for an allocation system to limit contaminant discharges at a catchment-by-catchment level.  Secondly, the Government wants to address the authority to take and use water, provided it recognises and acts on the shared interests of the Crown and Māori.

Issues and options for allocation of discharges will be discussed and consulted on through 2019 and 2020.  Options on water take allocation will be developed in 2019/2020.

The Government also wants to create a range of tools to provide a future framework for freshwater.  This will include requiring good practice tools to be used in farms, forests, and urban water management, as well as investing in solutions.

What is the impact of these changes on New Zealand’s freshwater?

These changes will impact Māori, large users of water and those who discharge to water and users of freshwater catchments.  They also have the potential to impact on business practices and change investment patterns as well as improving water quality.  As the details behind this work programme come into focus, all stakeholders will need to ensure that they are workable.

Routes of engagement over the next two years will be different than before.  The Land and Water Forum that has been working on freshwater since 2009 has no future.  The Minister for the Environment is clear that collaborative processes have their limits and this Government has an appetite to conclude discussions that have been stuck in that forum.  Instead, both work streams are supported by a network of advisors, which includes a taskforce of officials from a range of Ministries and Departments, three key groups called Kahui Wai Māori (Māori Freshwater Forum), a Freshwater Leaders Group (connected to Kahui Wai Māori and the Primary Sector Council), and a Science and Technical Advisory Group.  Plus there will be structured engagement with regional councils at all levels – elected officials, council staff, and chief executives.  There will also be opportunities for public involvement.  Consultation on the Freshwater NPS, Freshwater NES and RMA amendments will start from early next year.

If these changes will affect you or your business, you should contact us to see how we can assist.

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