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Wade, don't swim in government's new freshwater policy

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.


Comments and questions

Wonderful..what complete joke the NZ clean and green image continues to be. The new policy is feeble and the allowable pollution limits way too high. .
Perhaps a good dollop of negative publicity offshore might make people here wake up properly. That is probably easy enough to arrange..

Reasonbly clean air,reasonably clean water.Two precious resources for our wellbeing and future.But no its all about the money and generating it,bugger anything else good onya kiwi business short term gain,long term disaster!

Carte Blanche for continued destruction of our waterways - agriculture can continue to privatise its profits while socialising its costs (via pollution). Disgraceful.

Watered down to nothing.

Why cant government focus on the greater good of the country, rather than being lobbied to death by a select minority; especially with more farms owned by overseas interests. While dairy farming may currently contribute a significant component of overseas earnings, this may not be as significant in the future.

The NZ governments should have more teeth, and package water reforms so that if hardship is proven, then alternative interim options are available. No chance of this happening with the Key government, given the banks have a $100 billion investment in farms.

Follow the money!!

Sam Zell?

US billionaire Sam Zell has invested about $15 million in Dairy Farms NZ Ltd, which is considering a listing. In today’s National Business Review print edition, reporter David Williams reveals the dairy farm investment company has already raised $40 million and has Overseas Investment Office approval to buy two neighbouring Canterbury farms.

At the Forbes Reinventing America Summit, billionaire real estate developer Sam Zell said, “If you want to see the economy go wild just cut all the regulations in half.” Zell is known for his contrarian views and more often than not has been a successful investor. Cutting regulations is certainly contrary to what generally takes place in Washington. Regulations, especially environmental regulations, just keep piling up and up. - See more at:

Polluter pays - with the highest (albeit falling as we speak) dairy prices in a generation when is there going to be a better time to demand that the dairy sector really ups its game? Fence off all streams, plant the riparian strips, minimise the nitrogen inputs and mandate housing of cow herds for new conversions.

Sorry Atlas. Your recommendations, viz " Fence off all streams, plant the riparian strips, minimise the nitrogen inputs and mandate housing of cow herds for new conversions." are in some cases impractical ; in others, ineffective in addressing the real issues which vary by catchments ; in others , too narrow (nitrogen inputs) ; and lastly , unnecessary (cow housing).

The issue may be very simple : stock density , i.e. cows/Ha/day, and secondly , buying production (feed and nitrogen fertilizer).
Stocking rate is elevated by the latter practice.

And seasonal dairying (spring calving) is the root cause of the excessive stock density which results from high pasture covers in early spring.

Total redesign of the dairy industry is the only lasting solution. The emphasis on commodity production has been a disaster every way that you look at it.

For those with the polluter pays argument, be very careful just how far you want to push that. Ratepayers in a large numbers of our towns and cities will be facing some big big costs, or maybe even calls to be "destocked" in order to protect our waterways. Aucklands infrastructure has many failure points (including raw sewerage leaks in heavy rain that were recently reported, including one that has been unresolved for 20 years) so we better shut the gates until those problems are sorted.

Yup even Auckland must suck it up - polluter pays. That would of course require Len Brown to spend money on the distinctly unsexy area of drainage and sewage rather than $2 billion on his merry go round. We have the money, do we have the desire?

Good luck with that. It is easy for the masses to complain about evil dairy farmers destroying the country, much harder to face the evil ratepayer looking at them in the mirror.
Mike Joy bitches about farmers but doesn't question what happens when he flushes.

Hopefully when most people flush..there is some sort of treatment setup which processes the flushed material to a high degree . If not there ought to be..certainly.
Even septic tank rules are much tighter these days..can't have just any old thing stuck in the ground to fill up and leach through the soil
But when it comes to the farms and the environment..especially dairying, well it is another story and sounds like will remain so under the present regime.

Maybe it will change when the tourist dollars dry up....which they will once word gets out... .

" when the tourist dollars dry up.."

Bring it on I say. It would be hard to think of a less sustainable activity than the recreational pollution that we call tourism.