Experts on Government’s freshwater policy package

The Government last night announced its freshwater policy package, the centrepiece of which is the National Policy Statement, which sets a nationwide framework for regulating water quality and quantity limits.

Credit: Frank Burdon

The package also sees the formation of the Irrigation Acceleration Fund, which will support the development of irrigation infrastructure proposals, and will be allocated $35 million in funding over five years in next week’s Budget.

The Fresh Start for Fresh Water Clean Up Fund will also lend financial support to councils attempting to clean up polluted waterways. This fund has reprioritised funding of $15 million over two years, and a total clean-up programme commitment of $264.8 million.

The Science Media Centre approached water management experts to seek their feedbacl on the iniatives. Photos of waterways available on request.

Angus McIntosh – Professor and Mackenzie Foundation Chair in Freshwater Ecology, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The need to halt declines in freshwater biodiversity values is critical. The current situation is really quite grim. In a recent survey of small waterways on the Canterbury Plains we have found over 80% are either moderately or severely polluted. For Canterbury urban waterways (pre earthquake), the situation is even worse.

“Delays or a business as usual approach will see substantial loss of water-related ecosystem services (e.g., processing of nutrients and decomposition), increased threats to public health (e.g., toxic algal blooms) and very likely even extinctions. For example, 81% of our native galaxiid freshwater fishes have been ranked as endangered in the most recent classification. Species like the Canterbury mudfish reside completely within the agricultural area of the Canterbury Plains and are on a knife edge as their nationally critical status indicates.

“The National Policy Statement (NPS) offers the chance to halt these declines and rehabilitate damaged ecosystems, but only if we get the details right. Appropriate environmental limits are needed. Our research indicates an environmental tipping point around 20% fine sediment (i.e., silt and sand) in a stream, for example. Any more than that, and biodiversity is substantially degraded. Moreover, a whole water network approach needs to be applied. Indications in the NPS that outstanding sites should be selected is worrying because it implies the rest can be left.

“That idea was firmly rejected by the NPS Board of Inquiry because it ignores the fact that freshwater ecosystems form networks. To reverse the declines, environmental limits and riparian protection need to be applied across the board. The scale of that is huge. There are over 8000 km of small waterways on the Canterbury Plains that largely go unmanaged because they are so small that they are regarded as drains or ditches. I would hope a decent chunk of the government funding announced will go towards dealing with those sort of issues.”

Professor Jenny Webster-Brown, Director, The Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management University of Canterbury & Lincoln University, comments:

On the NPS:

“The NPS is a necessary and critical step in the implementation of the Land and Water Forum’s recommendations. It uses the recommendations of the Land & Water Forum to drive and direct changes in Regional Council Policies and Plans, standardising the targets for freshwater management across New Zealand. As a framework, the NPS seeks an outcome for freshwater systems which we (and I believe most New Zealanders) strongly support, but it stops short of defining the conditions that will make this outcome a reality; nationally consistent environmental limits for water take and for water quality.

“Therefore the next important step, once this policy statement is in effect, is the determination of these environmental limits. This is anticipated in 2012, and is essential if we are to move significantly beyond the ideals originally embodied in the RMA, in reference to freshwater. The RMA has not prevented widespread degradation of water quality in New Zealand, so a better approach is certainly needed if we are even to maintain current water conditions, let alone seek an improvement.

“A regular review of NPS performance after its implementation will be needed, which in turn will require the collection of adequate environmental monitoring data. A review within 5 years of NPS implementation is proposed. This may be too short a time frame to detect any significant change in water systems attributable to the policy changes, particularly given the fact that the NPS will not be applied retrospectively to consents awarded or applications lodged prior to July 2011. Until these consents come up for renewal or review, and can be changed to align with the NPS, improvements in freshwater quality are likely to be marginal. Regular review of the NPS performance every 5 years would provide more useful information on the effectiveness of this policy.

“There is a concern that the 1 July 2011 NPS implementation date will itself present a target for those seeking to lodge new consents for water take or for discharge. This has to be avoided or the most immediate effects of NPS implementation on freshwater environments may be negative.”

On the Irrigation Acceleration Fund:

“Although the simultaneous announcement of incentives for irrigation development may seem to be in direct conflict with the aims of the NPS, this need not be the case. Releasing the announcements together as a package (with the Fresh Start for Fresh Water Clean-up Fund also) suggests that irrigation acceleration must be undertaken in a manner consistent with the NPS. This will require greater efficiencies in water use, and significant reductions in nutrient and effluent leaching from irrigated land, to be achieved. If the technologies available to address these issues are adopted, it is not impossible that the aims of both the NPS and the Irrigation Acceleration initiative can be achieved.”

On the Fresh Start for Fresh Water Clean-up Fund;

“This fund for councils to restore historically degraded freshwater environments is very welcome. Restoration of these systems and their catchments is an expensive process. To be successful, restoration requires two-fold support; funding for research to identify successful restoration strategies, and funding for restoration logistics and resources. One without the other has a limited chance of success and too many of our most impacted catchments and water systems have neither. The $15million fund over 2 years should help restoration efforts get off the ground, but a longer term commitment will be required to ensure successful restoration of many systems.”

Professor David Hamilton, BOP Chair in Lakes Management & Restoration at Waikato University and President of the New Society Freshwater Sciences Society comments:

Professor Hamilton’s comments are available in full here.

“Over the past decade or so New Zealanders have witnessed accelerated degradation of many waterbodies in response to diffuse nutrients derived mostly from agricultural sources.

“The limits-based approach in the NPS is designed to arrest this degradation and will ensure that land use practices are aligned with the national goal of ensuring clean freshwater in downstream environments”.

“The work programme for the ‘Fresh Start for Fresh Water’ has already identified the potential for ‘gold rushes’ of land use change prior to the implementation of the NPS in Freshwater Management.

“Such changes would be completely at odds with the desired outcome of the NPS, particularly for catchments that are sensitive to pollution, or that have specific cultural or environmental freshwater values, in addition to where available freshwater is already over-allocated such as in areas of Canterbury.

“The Society wishes to see the NPS implemented in a way which will prevent further land use change and degradation of selected waterbodies so that costly clean-up steps are avoided.

“New Zealanders are already bearing a substantial cost for the protection of Lake Taupo and the restoration of the Rotorua lakes and the Waikato River. There is some acceptance that this cost will be spread across the community given that there was limited knowledge of the implications of past land use changes on water quality and quantity, but this is no longer the case and we cannot continue to externalise the costs to communities and the New Zealand taxpayer of pollution by private industries.

“The irrigation and clean-up fund of up to $400 million approved by Cabinet, to fast-track regional irrigation schemes is an example of externalising the costs of greater water efficiency and expanding the irrigation infrastructure while at the same time the Fresh Start for Fresh Water Clean-up Fund will provide only $15 million in additional funding over two years to help communities clean up waterways that are affected by historical pollution.”

Dr Mike Joy, Director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystem Management and Modeling at Massey University comments:

“It’s hard to see how this long overdue freshwater NPS will make any difference to the state of NZs waterways when it contains no national standards and farming intensification arguably the biggest issue for freshwater quality and quantity is not addressed.

“Despite the RMA being labelled ‘effects based’ it failed to address the main impact on freshwater quality, that is, diffuse nutrient pollution. The only nutrient inputs to freshwaters that are presently controlled or indeed will be controlled under this NPS are from point sources (out of pipes). On dairy farms this is the waste from the relatively short time that cows spend in the shed. For towns and industry it’s the wastewater discharged out of pipes into rivers.

“The bigger problem is the diffuse waste from intensive dairy farming (through urine and farm nutrient run-off and leaching) is only mentioned once in the NPS (in Policy A4) and only applies to new discharges or increases from now on (actually for applications in by July 1st allowing

for a last minute rush of applications to beat the changes). This effectively means that regional councils will (if they chose to) be able to regulate the main impact on freshwater quality -farming intensity.

“However, given that prior to the NPS the councils chose not to control intensification even though it is obviously having a detrimental effect on water quality it seems unlikely this will change. Thus, we can expect no overall change in water quality any time soon.

“On the whole, It’s hard to see how there will be any change under the NPS, given that the objectives are virtually the same as those in the RMA and after 20 years all the signs are the freshwaters are degraded and getting worse. The only difference is the mention of cumulative effects in the NPS

(Policy C1) which was a glaring failing under the previous management regime, as exampled by the Manawatu River where around 150 insignificant discharges become a big problem cumulatively.

“As in the existing RMA freshwater indigenous biodiversity is highlighted (NPS Objective A1), but after 20 years of that legislation we now have close to 2/3rds of our freshwater fish listed as threatened along with our freshwater crayfish and mussel we can see that completely failed that objective. These species are our freshwater “miners canaries” and their threatened status says more than any number of reports can about the disregard local end central government have shown to our freshwaters to date.

“This national policy statement continues that trend of policy containing lots of nice words and lofty ideals but no teeth or standards, so this is a huge opportunity lost and we can expect more of the same the further degrading of the ‘clean green’ myth.”