Govt to end water quality bickering with national standards

The government is hailing as a breakthrough national agreement among water scientists on benchmarks to dictate new bottom lines for freshwater quality across New Zealand.

Environment and Agriculture Ministers Amy Adams and Nathan Guy released proposals to update the two-year-old National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, including quantifiable benchmarks for a range of measures of freshwater health.

The latest chapter in the long-running freshwater policy reform process has been cautiously welcomed by environmental groups, but they say the proposals don't go far enough in several areas.

Most significant among the proposals is the creation of "compulsory values" which will have to be applied across all national waterways without exception, and national "numerical bottom lines for the national values."

These will be based on two broad sets of measures covering ecosystem health and human health.

At its most basic, the human health values would require that all New Zealand freshwater bodies are safe for wading and boating, but the Environmental Defence Society said "overall, New Zealand's freshwater should be swimmable and fishable as a minimum."

EDS and the New Zealand Fish and Game Council also called for the inclusion of "macro-invertebrates" such as aquatic insects as an area for measurement along with the proposed standards for ecosystem health that include levels of chlorophyll, nitrogen, phosphorous, nitrate toxicity, ammonia toxicity, dissolved oxygen, and periphyton blooms in waterways.

The human health measures are for levels of E.Coli and cyanobacteria, along with a grading as to suitability for recreation.

While better quality scientific information could not settle conflicts over values, decide trade-offs, or determine where the costs of different options should be borne, the inclusion of agreed scientific information was a crucial new element in the freshwater management regime process, said Adams.

"These are very difficult conversations for communities to have. And we all have stories about how hopeless or frustrating they can be, as many end up with continual and costly debate in the Environment Court," she said. "The proposed framework provides a process for working through these issues - as well as numeric values for some of the water quality attributes we need to manage."

Water advocacy groups broadly welcomed the fact the proposals are in line with the ground-breaking work of the Land and Water Forum, a four year consultative process that brought traditionally warring interest groups together on a long term approach to the increasingly vexed issue of freshwater quality.

"However, the actual standards and bottom-lines proposed are incomplete and those that are there will need strengthening," said EDS director Gary Taylor.

"Overall, some of the other bottom-line standards appear weaker than expected and in many cases are considerably lower than current water quality. We will need to take scientific advice on what adjustments are required."

Adams placed attention to Maori values at the top of the list of factors the revised regime would cover, followed by a new requirement on regional and local councils to start measuring water takes, although she was quick to brush aside suggestions this could lead to water meters for all householders.