More than decade of false starts and collaborative process by both Labour and National-led governments has concluded with government decisions on a new national policy governing freshwater resources, with some wins for the environment, but an acceptance there are water bodies that will not be fit to swim in for many years.
Despite a deluge of public submissions seeking "swimmability" as a bottom line for freshwater bodies in New Zealand, Environment Minister Amy Adams ultimately opted for a basic bottom line for freshwater quality requiring the ability to wade or go boating, rather than being clean enough to swim in.
In effect, the policy acknowledges water quality in a significant proportion of waterways is below that level and, in some cases, deteriorating and that as long as backsliding is not permitted, the "bottom line" is unlikely to match public expectations.
The National Objectives Framework and National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management gained cautious support from the Environmental Defence Society, which described the decisions as "a significant step", which has largely acknowledged the work of the Land and Water Forum, a Nordic-style collaborative process initiated five years ago by the then Environment Minister, Nick Smith.
That followed an abortive nine year process under the previous Labour government to grapple with the same issues, at a time when dairy industry intensification began to place heavy, new burdens on available freshwater resources and environmental processes.
The adoption of a NOF for freshwater was "a significant step forward" in setting environmental bottom lines, but "we have some concerns as to whether the detail will in fact lead to the water quality improvements New Zealanders are demanding," said EDS's Gary Taylor in a statement.
The nation's largest company, dairy cooperative Fonterra, welcomed the decisions, while Irrigation New Zealand welcomed them "cautiously".
The Green Party said the final decisions were "a licence to pollute" and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society said the outcome was disappointing.
"New Zealanders want clean rivers that they can swim in," said the Greens' water spokesperson, Eugenie Sage, "Around 90 percent of public submissions called for this."
The government documents describe a process to improve freshwater quality that could, in some cases, take as long as 80 years, since leaching pollutants deposited by past generations continue to affect water quality well into the future.
The new national objectives do not allow freshwater resources to deteriorate and insist on at least "secondary human contact" - wading and boating - being reached, with higher quality levels that include swimmability already being reached by some waterways, and evidence of improvement across all areas of pollutants visible already.
A loophole in the original recommendations was closed to ensure all regional councils adopt a plan to improve freshwater quality.
However, EDS is concerned that, on a regional basis, water bodies could be allowed to deteriorate by allowing an "overs and unders" approach to regional outcomes, and warned those concepts were likely to be tested in the courts.
In a nod to the clear public preference for a "swimmability" target, Adams said the regime would now include permission for local governments to implement standards at a higher levels than the NOF's national bottom lines.
Crucially, the new policy requires regional governing bodies to "set fresh water management units and include all fresh water bodies within them", with all regional councils required to have plans in place by Dec 31, 2015, with a five year cut in the implementation timeframe, from 2030 as originally proposed, to 2025.
The NOF also sees the merging of several previously proposed categories, and accepts but gives incomplete guidance on the creation of a measure of invertebrate life in waterways, regarded as the best way to measure freshwater health, but fraught with scientific difficulty.
Adams deleted parts of the NOF giving exemptions for pollution caused by historic activities because there was no evidence that such cases existed.
Taylor expressed concern in a briefing with officials from Ministry for the Environment about the potential for loose wording in the NOF and National Policy Statement, to trigger court action, particularly over the ability to count "overs and unders" in compliance within a single catchment.
Of particular concern to all parties is the approach to measuring invertebrate life in waterways, a highly specific science based on local conditions, but regarded as the best way to measure health of water bodies, but is fraught with scientific difficulty.
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