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Freshwater action plan – Expert Reaction

The Government has released an Action Plan for Healthy Waterways, which aims to restore rivers and lakes within a generation.

The plan proposes new requirements to improve freshwater including setting higher standards for swimmability in summer, interim controls on land intensification and a higher bar on ecosystem health.

The SMC gathered expert comments on the plan, which has been released for public consultation.

Julia Talbot-Jones
Linda Te Aho
Troy Baisden
Richard McDowell
Iain White
Scott Larned
Chris Tanner

Dr Julia Talbot-Jones, lecturer, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Today’s announcement by the Government regarding freshwater holds promise. Science and te mana o te wai are front and centre, and funding for the transition provided. These are good things and the government should be commended for prioritising these aspects.

“A few red flags do emerge, however. First, freshwater quality is clearly the priority, while the can for freshwater allocation has been kicked down the road without a timeline. Because limited water supply intensifies issues concerning water quality (e.g. low water levels could lead to warmer stream temperatures that contribute to increased algal growth etc), failing to adopt an integrated policy approach to quality and quantity risks marginalising the net benefits of freshwater policy reform.

“Second, the discussion document fails to outline how issues of capacity and enforcement at local government level are to be addressed. Although attention is given to the importance of monitoring, missing from the discussion is the fact that local government actually has to analyse the data it collects in order to understand the range of quality and quantity issues, and enforce indiscretions. As numerous reports have shown, both of these elements are currently missing from many local government processes.

“Third, suggested policy pathways for implementing the NPS are weak. Guidance from central government, or preferably an independent water commission, is fundamental to ensuring that the policy tools used are the ones most likely to incentivise the desired behaviour change. Research shows that incentivising long term behaviour change requires local governments to design policy that prioritises longer-term efficacy over a policy’s short-term acceptability.

“In New Zealand, this will be a challenge for local governments who will need the support of central government/the water commission, economists, scientists, and legal experts, to ensure that the ambitious target of ‘restoring’ waterways within a generation is able to be at least partially met.”

Conflict of interest statement: Julia is an affiliate of Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.

Associate Professor Linda Te Aho (Ngāti Koroki Kahukura and Ngāti Mahuta), Associate Dean Māori at Te Piringa Faculty of Law, University of Waikato, comments:

“The freshwater crisis we face in Aotearoa New Zealand is complicated and multi-dimensional. The Government’s latest proposals in [this plan] reflect a genuine desire to effect measures of positive change before it is too late.

“The three objectives of the action plan demonstrate the determination to address particularly thorny issues: ‘To stop further degradation of New Zealand’s freshwater resources and start making immediate improvements so that water quality is materially improving within five years; to reverse past damage to bring New Zealand’s freshwater resources, waterways and ecosystems to a healthy state within a generation; and to address water allocation issues having regard to all interests including Māori and existing and potential new users.’

“It will be pleasing for iwi leaders to see proposals for stronger mechanisms to give effect to Te Mana o te Wai, a lodestar concept they fought to have embedded in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater, and which places the health and wellbeing of waterways at the forefront of decision-making. The innovative proposition for a Freshwater Commission is of particular interest. Without wanting to detract from the good work of advisory groups such as Te Kahui Wai, the lack of mana ki te mana engagement with iwi leaders in accordance with Te Tiriti o Waitangi has been raised as a major concern about the process.”

Conflict of interest statement: Linda is part of the research team funded by the NZ Law Foundation to explore the idea of a Freshwater Commission in more detail, and has also served as an advisor to iwi leaders on issues relating to freshwater law and governance. 

Professor Troy Baisden, BOPRC Chair in Lake and Freshwater Sciences, University of Waikato, comments:

“Today’s announcements from the Essential Freshwater Programme appear to give effect to the Environment Minister’s commitment to reverse the decline of New Zealand’s iconic lakes and rivers. This delivery reflects the emergence of water as a significant issue in the last election, and increasing evidence including the recent Environment Aotearoa 2019 report, making it clear degradation needs to be addressed.

“A key driver for today’s policy announcements is that the perceived tradeoff between the farming industry and the environment makes little sense going forward. If we trade internationally on our reputation for a healthy environment, continued degradation of water fouls both the value of our main exports and our heritage. That’s progress, but the proposal is necessarily complex, reflecting that freshwater pollution has been allowed to get worse longer than it should.

“Some of the most compelling provisions finally draw a line where limits need to be set to prevent further slippage. Essentially, these include a halt to significant expansions of practices including dairy farming and irrigation, and limits on the use of nitrogen in some key catchments. The exclusion of larger grazing animals from water and wetlands will be greatly improved.

“The mechanisms of getting the provisions in place appears likely to be complicated and ad-hoc, but clearly reverses the main cause of delays. Here’s the reversal: rather than require regional councils to implement a National Policy Statement (NPS) by making changes to each regional plan, key changes are now implemented nationally, either through changes to the Resource Management Act itself, or through a binding National Environmental Statement (NES). In addition, where the new NPS requires region by region action, national limits on intensification will apply until regional plans have been amended to comply with the NPS.

“In short, this makes a halt to the worst forms of degradation the default, rather than an item on an underfunded to-do list. This increases the likelihood of stopping degradation, and having a sense of progress by the intended date of 2025. This will still be a challenging process, where levels of nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorous – causing decline of ecology in lakes and rivers can be set well above the national bottom line.

“Underpinning all the policies and rules is a need for science, information and the tools built from these to be an integral part of the process, making decisions that are ultimately determined by values. Some key processes for driving decisions in the policy document are still signalled as options. Seeing the scope of the documents and options to consider should bring home this is a democratic process, with many decisions to be made nationally and locally.

“One of the most intriguing options left open to consultation is whether Te Ao Māori perspectives previously incorporated as Te Mana o Te Wai will be given compulsory value related to Mahinga Kai (culturally significant food gathering practices), or will be given different consideration place-by-place by individual iwi and hapū.

“This could be a good place to focus, and see if we can put the values of Māori and Pakeha together, to ensure that the passionate voice of the farming community debates against a voice clearly representing our freshwater ecosystems – the fish, the kōura and the critters they eat. This is the first time we’ve had a NPS document that includes all the detailed pieces – measurable attributes – we need to use to keep aquatic life healthy. Now that we have all the pieces, we will still need to put them together through the upcoming consultation and years of implementation.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Richard McDowell, chief scientist, Our Land and Water, comments:

“The Government has outlined an extensive mix of policy directions, environmental standards, and voluntary actions that will improve our protection of fresh waters.

“The proposal is a distinctly New Zealand approach that recognises that we will not prosper unless the health and mauri of fresh water is protected.

“The proposed regulation of some farm practices such as fencing and grazing of winter forage crops goes some way towards correcting what was missing in existing policy documents. We will have to see the result of consultation and assessments of what’s practical to see if they go further. For example, we know the majority (77%) of contaminant loads come from small streams, but fencing them off may not be the most practical nor sensible when other mitigations in headwaters are probably more cost-effective. We also know that 10% of a farm in winter forage cropping contributes 30–40% of the nutrient load, but suspect that this proportion may be greater if winter forage cropping is practiced on floodplains.

“It’s encouraging to see regulation will be implemented (in part) through a mapped farm environment plan, while taking action across a whole catchment. We know that identifying critical source areas on a farm and targeting them with practices to mitigate contaminant loss is much (six to seven times) more cost-effective than an untargeted approach. We’ve also recently calculated that if all known mitigations are implemented nationally by 2035, we will reduce nutrient and sediment losses by 30% to 60%.

“The primary sectors have set a target of having farm environment plans in place before the Government’s proposed policy becomes mandatory. I would sound a note of caution though: these plans must be objective, quantitative, linked to catchment objectives, and auditable. If not, land owners and managers won’t have the information to know when and where to apply mitigations – or if they need to consider land use change, should the potential 30% to 60% reduction in contaminants still not be enough to achieve ‘good’ fresh water status.”

No conflict of interest.

Iain White, Professor of Environmental Planning, University of Waikato, comments:

“There is a lot to like in the document. It’s catchment wide and inter-generational, which better reflects the scale of the problem and the length of time it may take to transition to a more sustainable relationship. It also describes a shared responsibility to uphold Te Mana o te Wai – the health and wellbeing of water – which could help shift technical, managerial, debates on ‘quality’ towards more intrinsic values.

“However, as the document acknowledges, despite a wealth of science, tools and guidance, freshwater quality continues to decline. While a focus on shared responsibility reflects the reality of the situation, it also links to the practical political difficulties in aligning decision-making around a shared vision when this is such an intensely political issue.

“As such, the key questions will be around implementation and decision-making, particularly from a multi-decadal perspective. How ambitious will the freshwater management plans be? What is the nature of the economic support for transition? Or how do you define ‘healthy’? In this respect, I anticipate the power and oversight of the mooted independent Freshwater Commission will be hugely important in translating policy ambition to practical action.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Scott Larned, Chief scientist freshwater, NIWA, comments:

“The basic premise of Essential Freshwater is that the existing regulatory tools such as the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) are not sufficient for preventing and reversing the degradation of freshwater environments.

“The proposals for stronger regulations that comprise Essential Freshwater were developed with input from freshwater scientists, iwi leaders, representatives from primary sectors and environmental organisations, regional council managers and other stakeholders in land and water management. Ideally, this broad range of input will lead to a broad base of support for implementation. The Essential Freshwater package is ambitious and will be challenging for councils and land and water users to implement, but it may be exactly what is needed to initiate or accelerate large-scale improvements in freshwater environments.

“New Zealand has some persistent problems with water quality and ecosystem health in freshwater environments. These problems have been identified in Environment Aotearoa 2019 and earlier reports, and in numerous scientific publications from NIWA and other organisations. These are wicked problems in the sense that they have multiple causes, occur in complex and dynamic environments and involve trade-offs between ecological, social, cultural and economic values.

“The primary focus of the Essential Freshwater proposals is freshwater degradation associated with land-use practices. For example, elevated levels of heavy metals in urban streams are associated with land-use practices such as road use, and elevated levels of nutrients and sediment in rural streams are associated with fertiliser use, stock grazing, tillage and other farm practices. Reducing contaminant concentrations will require changes in land use practices. However, several challenges must be addressed before we can specify the land-use changes required with certainty. One of the challenges concerns gaps in our knowledge of land-use effects. These gaps are acknowledged in the Essential Freshwater package, along with the need to improve understanding through targeted science investments. A closely related challenge concerns long time-lags between land-use activities and adverse effects in freshwater ecosystems. In many catchments, contaminants generated by land use move through groundwater for decades before reaching rivers and lakes where their effects are observed. In these cases, the land-use regulations proposed in Essential Freshwater may have no detectable benefits for generations. This time-lag problem is recognised in Essential Freshwater through the adoption of Te Mana o te Wai as the water management framework, as intergenerational commitment to is a central tenet of Te Mana o te Wai.

“The proposed inclusion of multiple ecosystem-health attributes in a new NPS-FM could improve the range of freshwater values that are protected, including threatened and taonga species, fisheries and other ecosystem services, and native biodiversity. However, a substantial amount of work will be required to ensure that the ecosystem-health attributes can be measured accurately, linked to land-use practices, and predicted in the many freshwater environments for which no data are available.

“In addition to freshwater science, the Essential Freshwater package will require regulatory impact analyses, regional plan changes and other steps before it can be implemented. But first and foremost, it requires feedback through the submission process. NIWA’s freshwater scientists will review the details of the Essential Freshwater package and prepare a submission on technical issues. We encourage all stakeholders in land and water management to provide feedback, and all New Zealanders have a stake.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Chris Tanner, Director, Te Waiora Joint Institute for Freshwater Management, University of Waikato and NIWA, comments:

“The Essential Freshwater Package released today charts a courageous plan to address the broader ecosystem health and swimmability issues facing our freshwaters. It moves beyond the current limited range of water quality measures in place to address the wider health and functioning of aquatic ecosystems, and maintenance of the habitat, water quality and flows required to sustain aquatic life. The package presents pragmatic pathways. These outcomes could be achieved using existing powers available under the Resource Management Act, whilst leaving the way open for further RMA reform in the future.

“Engaging and involving tangata whenua and communities in the discussion, and putting Te Mana o te Wai –the holistic health of the water– as the first priority, has enabled a longer-term, more ambitious vision to be proposed. Recognition of the significant costs of inaction, including the practical challenges and huge expense involved in rehabilitating degraded freshwaters, and impacts on our long-term well-being also appears to have unlocked the Government’s resolve. It points the finger at both urban and rural land and water management and signals a turnaround in how we value the environment and the well-being it provides us.

“It is great to see the active involvement and uptake of ideas from a range of advisory groups, including the Freshwater Leaders Group and Te Kahui Wai Māori, as well as science and technical, and regional council sector advice. In many cases there appears to be close accord between these groups about what is required to manage the impacts of human activities on the freshwater values that New Zealanders hold dear. This, along with a strong general mandate from the public and general recognition by land-based industries of the problems that need to be addressed to regain public confidence, is likely to have strengthened the government’s resolve to confront these issues in this discussion document.

“Achieving the aims of this plan, once the most appropriate implementation options have been agreed, is where challenge will really kick in. Current land and water use will require significant change, and land owners and managers, industries and regulators will all need to modify the way they do things to ensure that plans are put into action, that real change occurs, and progress can be measured. This will inevitably increase costs and impact on the bottom-lines of some businesses, particularly in over-allocated and sensitive catchments. It will require a step change in land and water management capability and capacity by urban developers as well as farmers, and the advisors and professionals that support them. Greater involvement of iwi/hapu in decisions will also require resourcing and capacity-building to enable it to be incorporated in a meaningful way. It will require the application of a suite of new scientific and mātauranga-informed monitoring, modelling and mitigation tools. Lack of investment in this know-how will hamper efficient realisation of the improvements New Zealanders want in the health of their waterways.”

No conflict of interest.