Clarence River New Zealand. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Freshwater agenda – Expert Reaction

blueprint for the Government’s freshwater agenda, which sets out key objectives for improving water quality over the next two years, has been released today.

The objectives are:
– to stop further degradation and loss
– to reverse past damage
– to address water allocation issues.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the policy document: Essential Freshwater: Healthy Water, Fairly Allocated. Please feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Dr Stewart Cameron, Head of Geohydrology, GNS Science

“New Zealand needs a paradigm shift such as this to reverse current trends in freshwater quality. The Government’s action plan for the next two years is bold and hopefully achievable. It’s a ‘round one’ win for the environment, but there are many more rounds to go. The agenda takes the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management to the next level with stronger involvement of iwi, non-government organisations and the community. There are also shortened timeframes and more ambitious measures of success.

“It is good that the Government recognises the urgency of New Zealand’s freshwater crisis situation and is addressing it through this agenda. Part of our role is to support the continued development of strong local, regional and national regulatory control, policy, and effective monitoring. Success will also require community and landowner buy in. The plan should be commended for allowing existing consents to be revisited.

“Lag times of water movement through catchments will be an important part in the time needed to achieve outcomes. Quick gains can be achieved by focusing on fast response systems, but actions are also required for slow response systems.

“Work is underway to improve management tools based on sound science and this will help to better inform policy and regulatory controls. While mitigation measures will play a part in the success of the freshwater agenda, the proposed timeframes will require a mind shift in land use practices and management objectives. For this agenda to be achievable, the emphasis in economic gains at the expense of the environment will need to change.”

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Cameron leads the Hydrogeology Department at GNS Science which works closely with the Ministry for the Environment and regional councils providing specialist scientific advice on aquifers and groundwater as appropriate.

Professor Troy Baisden, Professor in Lake and Freshwater Science, University of Waikato, comments:

“Today, the Government has set out its Essential Freshwater programme, including the establishment of a cross government Task Force. Key steps on the agenda include an ambitious timeline for reform of key legislation, the Resource Management Act (RMA), and the National Policy Statement that gives it effect nationally.

“The 24-page document gives enough detail to spell out the complexity of managing water. Here, complexity makes it frustrating to ask these simple questions: what’s most important and how do we fix it? Unfortunately, unlike greenhouse gases which cause climate change after mixing into the global atmosphere, threats to freshwater vary widely from catchments to catchment.

“It’s fair to say that controlling nitrate matters most in many places, but that pathogens, sediment and phosphorous are more critical in other places. Newer threats, such as microplastics and endocrine disrupters may also deserve serious attention. Last week’s release from LAWA showed us that we have improving data nationally, but that most New Zealanders will still struggle to understand what to fix where.

“It appears to me the success of the Task Force will depend on three interrelated expert groups to sort through the complexity. The biggest single question I have is, how will the Task Force do better than the Land and Water Forum? As the MfE document states (p. 14), the Land and Water Forum ‘could not resolve the tension between existing users and owners of underdeveloped land, including Māori.’

“A March 2016 analysis of the Land and Water Forum’s implementation of recommendations shows the scope of the challenge the Task Force’s experts will face. There were 218 recommendations across 4 Land and Water Forum reports, yet only 21 were fully implemented – less than 10%. Worse, over 50% of recommendations were not implemented at all.

“So what will be done differently? Perhaps the best hint is given in the press release, putting NGOs and Māori ahead of other stakeholders in the process, including industry and regional councils. A big challenge will be ensuring NGOs and Māori have access to the same quality of information and analysis as better resourced representatives from industry, councils and central government. If this is successful, and the information is transparently available to the public, that will be progress.

“Cost will limit action for farmers, but also councils. This leads to a question of whether legislative reform can enable better alignment of flood protection schemes, water quality and management of climate change risks.

“Farmers in many areas are keen to innovate and try new solutions, but can we get systems in place to prioritise the prospects in each area? And can improved monitoring quickly show if they work? Given the timeframe, success will require innovation more than new science.

“It will help greatly if this process takes a hierarchical approach. Local steps that seem small may add up to a lot if there are many. I’m hopeful the Task Force can succeed where the LAWF didn’t, if it can encourage innovation by helping people visualise a process they can understand and trust at a range of scales.”

Conflict of interest statement: Funded as the Bay of Plenty Regional Council Chair in Lake and Freshwater Science.

Dr Scott Larned, NIWA Manager, Freshwater Research, comments:

Note: This comment is limited to the new work streams in the Essential Freshwater programme, and does not address other government programmes that are listed under ‘Related work’.

“In my view, the most newsworthy aspects of the Essential Freshwater programme are:

  1. Addressing Maori rights and interests
  2. The immediate focus on stopping degradation in at-risk catchments
  3. Initiating work on contaminant-discharge allocation systems
  4. Greater regulatory control of land-use practices that are likely to affect water quality (e.g., winter grazing)
  5. The commitment to a ‘noticeable improvement in freshwater quality’ in five years.

“Success in each of these areas will take a lot of collaboration with communities, councils and the primary sector, research to underpin the policies, and relationship building with iwi.

“The first work stream focuses on at-risk catchments. I understand that a project within this work stream is underway at MfE, with input from regional councils. The Essential Freshwater document does not provide a specific definition for at-risk catchments, and there is insufficient detail for commenting. The last Land and Water Forum report noted that inconsistent criteria are being used to identify and manage at-risk catchments and that developing consistent criteria is a priority.

“The second work stream is a new (or amended) NPS-FM [National Policy Statement – Freshwater Management]. Most of the components of this work-stream align with recommendations in the last Land and Water Forum report (e.g., requirements for good management practices, resolving exceptions to national bottom lines). Those components are sensible and should help with NPS-FM implementation.  There are also several references to the “Sheppard principles” set out by the 2008 Board of Inquiry. However, there is no indication of which Sheppard principles are now under consideration, or how they will be incorporated in the amended NPS-FM.

“The third work stream is a NES for Freshwater Management. As with the amended NPS-FM, most of the components of this work stream align with recommendations in the last Land and Water Forum report (e.g., mechanisms for managing intensification, including consent reviews). Those components are also sensible. In addition, the proposed NES includes a provision for default ecological flows and levels. Those defaults were an important component of the draft NES on Ecological Flows and Water Levels (2008), which has been in abeyance for several years. It is good to see that work resurrected.

“The fourth work stream is on RMA amendments. There is insufficient detail in the Essential Freshwater work programme for detailed comments, although ‘reduced complexity, improved certainty and improved public participation’ are hard to argue against. More detail about the elements of this work stream are needed.

“The fifth work stream is on the development of an equitable and efficient contaminant discharge allocation system. Developing such a system is predicated on knowledge of four different processes: contaminant losses from land, surface and subsurface transport of contaminants from source areas to water bodies, contaminant loading and mixing in those water bodies, and environmental effects of the contaminants on freshwater values. A substantial amount of research and modelling work is required to ensure that a contaminant allocation system will have predictable, beneficial outcomes. This work should be included in the “Investment in Solutions” element of the “Freshwater Policy Future Framework” on page 23.”

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Larned participated in the Land and Water Forum Small Group that prepared the report to the Minister referred to in the Essential Freshwater document.