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Action for Healthy Waterways – Expert Reaction

The Government has announced new rules and regulations to clean up New Zealand’s waterways and protect them from future pollution. 

The Action for Healthy Waterways package sets higher standards around the cleanliness of swimming spots, includes a new bottom line for nitrogen toxicity, sets controls for farming practices like winter grazing and how much synthetic fertiliser is used, and requires mandatory and enforceable farm environment plans, among others.

The SMC gathered expert commentary on the new package. 

Professor Richard McDowell, Chief Scientist, Our Land and Water National Science Challenge comments:

“The Action for Healthy Waterways package represents the culmination of a decade of work that will protect water quality for future generations.

“Broadly, the package provides a balance between acting now on the low hanging fruit, such as stock exclusion and tidying up winter grazing, and recognising that policy work is ongoing in aspects like national bottom lines for DIN and DRP.

“Internationally the use of bottom lines is common and effective. Without a goal, there’s a risk that progress will be slower than New Zealanders will accept.

“The originally proposed bottom lines would have meant 6% of surface water catchments were over nitrogen limits and 25% were over phosphorus limits. We can manage our way out of some of that with good farming practices, but recognise that in some areas land use change will be required. Land use change isn’t cheap or easy, so I support the extra time being taken to ensure science backing up the bottom lines is fit for purpose.

“To help producers manage change, I support the use of mandatory, audited farm environment plans (FEPs). These plans can isolate critical source areas that lose most of the contaminants on farms, and targeting mitigations to these areas is 6 to 7 times more cost-effective than an untargeted approach.

“The Ministry for the Environment recognises the need for good decision-support tools like Overseer and FEPs, and we look forward to helping them be scientifically robust.

“The end game though is that we need to show improvements in ecosystem health. Our water quality monitoring networks will need to be redesigned to detect improvements in water quality and be linked to FEPs so that people are confident to put in mitigation strategies and get credit for them.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I sat on the Freshwater Leaders Group committee which informed Minister Parker”

Dr Scott Larned, Chief Scientist of Freshwater and Estuaries, NIWA, comments:

“The Action for Healthy Waterways reform package is a major step forward in improving New Zealand’s freshwaters.

“Some of the most noteworthy changes are in strengthening and clarifying Te Mana o Te Wai as an overarching framework for freshwater management, and elevating mahinga kai and mauri as additional compulsory values which, along with ecosystem health and human health, must be achieved and maintained in water bodies.

“Another major advance is in the broadened definition of ecosystem health, which now shifts the objectives of freshwater management from a narrow focus on chemical and physical water quality (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) to a broader focus that includes fish, aquatic plants, and ecological processes as well as water quality.

“Some of the other, similarly ambitious components of the Essential Freshwater package are new National Environmental Standards to protect our remaining wetlands, protect drinking water sources, improve fish passage, and regulate some agricultural practices that impact on freshwaters, and to strengthen the use of farm plans.

“Collectively, the components of Action for Healthy Waterways are designed to improve and protect aquatic ecosystems by managing activities on land more stringently than at present.

“The Action for Healthy Waterways package is not yet complete. More science and policy work will be needed to define environmentally sustainable river flows and lake levels, to allocate water to users more equitably, and to define dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus thresholds for rivers and ensure that they are effective in protecting ecosystem health.

“Action for Healthy Waterways is a far-reaching, complex package. Completing the remaining policy work and implementing the policies will be challenging for officials, councils, land and water users, and scientists. NIWA looks forward to working with all parties in this process.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Jenny Webster-Brown, Incoming Director, Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, and Adjunct Professor at Lincoln University and University of Canterbury, comments:

“This package of freshwater policy decisions represents another positive step in New Zealand’s journey to halt and reverse the degradation of our streams, rivers and lakes, particularly in agricultural landscapes. The actions proposed are intended to achieve improvement goals within a shorter timeframe than had been envisaged, which is laudable, but I am concerned that some of the actions proposed are insufficient to meet these timeframes.

“The lack of guidance for fairer and more sustainable water allocation is a critical omission in my opinion. Originally included in the Essential Freshwater Package, consideration of water allocation has now been deferred. The overallocation of freshwater (including groundwater) in the more arid areas of New Zealand threatens ecosystem health, fisheries, recreational values and drinking water supplies, as well as limiting use of the water resource for the most efficient and economically beneficial activities.

“Similarly, given the key role of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) in the degradation of our freshwaters, deferring a decision about a national bottom line for this attribute will also delay the anticipated improvements in water health. Making the nitrogen toxicity limits more rigorous, as proposed, does not address the principal nitrogen-related problem which is eutrophication, not toxicity. Continued development of DIN and phosphorous (DRP) national bottom lines needs to proceed as quickly as possible.

“It was good to see amendment of the proposed hydroelectricity exemptions in response to feedback, with stronger caveats around how this exemption may be applied. Continuing to widen the focus of the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) to include the protection and improvement of groundwater and urban water quality should, in my opinion,  be considered priorities for the next round of NPS-FM amendments.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I served on the Science and Technology Advisory Group (STAG) and participated in the development of the amended ecosystem health attributes.”

Associate Professor Linda Te Aho, Te Piringa Faculty of Law, Waikato University, comments:

“There is a lot to like in the freshwater reforms package, but still cause for iwi and hapū to be concerned. The package demonstrates a genuine desire to effect meaningful change away from a culture of disrespect that has led to the freshwater crisis we now face. It is heartening to see a stronger focus on restoring and protecting the health and wellbeing of waterways and on including Māori values in decision making.

“The targeted proposals to stop further degradation including immediate protection for wetlands, streams, and fish passages, and controlling poor farming practices provide hope. The current resource management and planning framework has failed to protect waterways. There is a dire need for new ideas and new ways of doing things if we are to rehabilitate our waterways as well as our approaches to governance and management. Time will tell whether the proposal for independent hearing panels will achieve the intended improvements.

“The proposal for a freshwater commissioner should reflect the Treaty partnership. A commission with Māori and Crown representation would give a stronger lead on Te Mana o Te Wai intentions. The Cabinet paper reveals that iwi and hapū have been included in ‘targeted hui’ to discuss the proposed reforms following publication of the discussion document. This falls far short of the Crown’s Treaty obligations of engagement on matters of such significance. There is still an opportunity for the Crown to embark on a process of co-designing legislation and mechanisms going forward. Once again, addressing fair allocation and Māori rights and responsibilities in relation to freshwater have been left in abeyance.”

Conflict of interest statement: Linda Te Aho is an executive board member of Waikato Tainui and is undertaking research funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation on Water Governance and Allocation. 

Dr Nicholas Kirk, Environmental Social Researcher, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, comments:

“The freshwater reforms revealed by Minister Parker today go some way to achieving the government’s goal of healthy waterways within a generation. The challenge in achieving this goal will be the implementation of these policies, and this responsibility will fall on regional councils. The $700 million announced today to help employ New Zealanders to plant stream banks, write farm plans, and build wetlands will assist councils with implementation. But regardless, I remain concerned about council capacity to implement these new policies, especially given most councils were struggling to implement the freshwater reform package passed by the previous National government.

“To help councils, the reforms revealed a new process for updating regional policy statements and plans, which are now to be overseen by expert commissioners and tangata whenua. But adopting this new process will take time and it is still unknown how this will speed up the typically slow RMA planning process. Many questions remain about council capacity to implement these reforms, for example: how will monitoring of new attributes, such as sediment, be paid for? Who will be employed to help farmers complete environmental plans? How will spatial exemptions for certain land uses, such as vegetable growing, work in practice?”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Adam Canning, Research Scientist at James Cook University, comments:

“For the first goal of stopping rivers getting worse, I would give the Government’s policy a B+ grade. For the second goal of restoring rivers to a healthy state within a generation, I would give the Government’s policy a D grade.

“There are some positive actions coming out of this, such as the fertiliser application cap, and fencing animals out of large streams. These must be closely monitored to ensure their effectiveness, and made more stringent if need be.

“But only the weakest of intensive winter grazing rule proposals have been adopted, and this will leave cows standing in 20cm of mud, without question. There is no requirement for animal shelter, which is important not only for welfare reasons. but to minimise soil pugging and erosion. The rules also do not take into account any variation in soil type.

“Even though 76% of our native fish are threatened or at risk of extinction, the STAG recommendation for a bottom line for fish health has not been included. This means there is no trigger for rivers with poor fish habitat to be improved.

“It is disappointing to see that there is no bottom-line for phosphorus and a very weak nitrogen bottom-line. The government’s adopted bottom-line is set on very poor and irrelevant nitrate toxicity criteria that will do little for ecosystem health.

“Although many of the measures proposed by the Science and Technical Advisory Group (STAG) have been recognised in the policy, they have been included largely in non-statutory form with no accompanying deadline. This means there is no accountability, no room for enforcement and leaves councils able to set goals with meaningless future deadlines.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am a member of the Essential Freshwater Science and Technical Advisory Group.”

Dr David Houlbrooke, Science Team Leader, Environmental Research, Farm Systems and Environment, AgResearch, comments:

“I think it’s important to see the emphasis in the announcements today on mandatory enforceable Farm Environment Plans (FEPs) that will recognise the unique characteristics of farms and the range of systems they operate under. These FEPs allow for site-specific and targeted approaches that take account of factors such as climate, topography, soil resource and hydrology.

“A blanket approach to how individual farms operate in relation to the freshwater resource would risk not only creating an unfair playing field, but also failing to produce the kind of results for freshwater that we all want to see in New Zealand.

“If we tailor the approach to individual farms and the specific challenges they face, then that is where scientists like ourselves at AgResearch can make a real difference in supporting transformational change. We can do this by providing options for property managers around varied land uses, and by harnessing digital technologies such as smart sensors, artificial intelligence and management of `big data’, and augmented reality to envisage how these sustainability gains might be put into practice on the farm.

“This is an area where working together, with funding from the likes of the Our Land and Water national science challenge, we can make real progress in freshwater management, which is so vital not just to our farming, but to every aspect of New Zealand life.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Brent Gilpin, Water & Waste Group Manager, ESR, comments:

“I am pleased to see a strong focus on reducing contamination in streams, increasing the holistic focus and the commitment to Te Mana of Te Wai.

“Improving water quality at places where people swim and recreate is important to New Zealanders, so it’s great to see mention of managing water quality so that the indicator organism E. coli is at levels less than a new national bottom line. While low E. coli levels usually mean low risk of illness, understanding sources is really important to understanding risks when high levels of E. coli are present, and even more importantly, what can be done to reduce contamination levels.

“Human sewage, farmed animals, and wildfowl all have different risks, and different mitigation options. The adaptive action plans will need to be able to recognise and respond to different sources of contamination.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I undertake research and consulting work for MBIE, MfE, Ministry of Health, MPI, regional councils, city councils, industry and consultants.”

Professor Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“It is important that New Zealand takes steps to rapidly lower nitrate levels in freshwater. Contaminated freshwater directly affects drinking water which has raised nitrate levels in many areas, particularly small rural supplies. These levels are high enough to be contributing to New Zealand’s high rates of colorectal cancer.”

No conflict of interest.

Kate McArthur, President, New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society, comments:

“The New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society acknowledges the newly announced government action for healthy waterways as an important step towards achieving the freshwater outcomes desired by New Zealanders. Strengthening Te Mana o te Wai to prioritise management first to the water, then to people and then other uses is fundamental to the future of freshwater, alongside recognising mahinga kai as a national compulsory value. However, without seeing the detail, it is difficult to know how Te Mana o te Wai will be effectively implemented in policy. The intention to halt the loss of wetlands and streams and reduce barriers to fish passage will begin to address some problems related to the decline of ecosystem health in Aotearoa, as was recently reported in the Ministry for the Environment’s Our Freshwater 2020.

“Controls on intensive farming, winter grazing and stock access to waterways address some of the farming activities that are most detrimental to water quality and freshwater habitats. We remain concerned that the waterway setback widths may not be enough, and our numerous small streams are not protected. These are critical for the protection of indigenous fish, freshwater ecosystem health and water quality.

“While protection for aquatic species from sediment and nitrate toxicity is strengthened in the new reforms, the Government hasn’t yet delivered on long-awaited protections of river ecosystem health from dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus. With decades of research already available on these pollutants, we are curious to see what further research the Government deems necessary before these protections can be delivered. Once the final documents are released in July, we will be able to more completely assess the effectiveness of the policies and regulations to protect indigenous species at risk of or threatened with extinction, freshwater habitats, mahinga kai, ecosystem health and water quality.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am currently a professional expert witness in freshwater science and policy across a number of regions nationally.”