Govt promises clean waterways with final freshwater plan

The Government is cracking down on nitrogen fertiliser use and asking councils to speed up their planning processes in order to clean up the country's waterways, Marc Daalder reports

One in five farmers will have to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertiliser they are using under a new rule announced as part of a suite of policies to clean up New Zealand's waterways.

The Government's long-awaited freshwater management plan was unveiled on Thursday, after years of work and seven months of consultation.

"Our environmental reputation is the thing that underpins our biggest export earners - tourism and agriculture. It’s time for us to invest in cleaning up our water in order to protect the economic value add it brings," Environment Minister David Parker said in a statement.

Climate Change Minister and Green Party co-leader James Shaw hailed the policies as the "strongest protections a government has ever put in place for waterways".

The suite of reforms includes a crackdown on agricultural intensification, harmful practices like winter grazing and the use of nitrogen fertiliser, a short deadline for councils to set out freshwater management plans, mandatory freshwater quality plans for every farm, rules preventing stock from entering waterways larger than one metre and stricter rules for water quality, particularly in popular swimming areas.

However, the Government has delayed making a decision on bottom lines for the amount of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) in waterways, after its Science and Technical Advisory Group recommended cutting the figure by nearly 90 percent to a level diary farmers said was unsustainable. On Wednesday, Politik reported New Zealand First forced Parker to back down on the proposal, which has been sent back to the advisory group for a second look, due back in 12 months. In the meantime, DIN levels must remain flat or reduce - they cannot grow.

The announcement came a month after a triennial report from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) and Statistics New Zealand found freshwater environments in all non-natural areas, including urban, forestry and farming environments, are heavily polluted.

Stock to be excluded from waterways

The bulk of the reform package is focused on cleaning up pastoral areas, which contain more than half of the country's total river length. The MfE report found nutrient or turbidity levels were exceeded in 95 percent of the total river length in these areas and E. coli levels exceeded in 24 percent.

"Studies at national, regional, and catchment scales show that the concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, and E. coli in rivers all increase as the area of farmland upstream increases," the study stated.

There are three focuses of concern for the Government's efforts to clean up rural waterways: Nitrates that make their way through groundwater and surface water run off into rivers and streams from the urine patches left by dairy cows, contaminants that leach into waterways from fertiliser and bacteria like E. coli entering waterways from the presence of livestock in those waterways.

Much of this can be addressed through keeping livestock away from waterways. From July 2023, dairy cattle and pigs will have to be excluded from rivers and lakes and all livestock other than sheep will have to stay out of certain wetlands. Two years later, remaining non-sheep livestock - including deer and beef cattle - will have to be kept out of rivers and lakes.

To that end, the Government has mandated that new fences built on farms must be at least three metres away from waterways - down from five metres in a draft proposal released in September. However, the September proposal also called for existing, permanent fencing that violated these rules to be uprooted, at a cost of billions of dollars to farmers over the coming decades. The Government has backed down on this suggestion, instead allowing permanent fencing to remain where it is.

"Officials anticipate that about 32,000km of streams will require fencing and setbacks in the lowland area at an anticipated cost of $61 million per annum amortised over a 25-year period. However, as these policies will provide significant environmental benefits, including for swimmability of rivers and improvements in water clarity due to erosion reductions, we consider these costs are justified," an appendix of the Cabinet paper on the freshwater reforms stated.

Intensification, other practices restricted

Two other harmful practices, feedlots and winter grazing, have also been subjected to regulation. Feedlots - vast, grassless pens where livestock are grain-fed, usually prior to slaughter - will now require resource consents. They will also need to be moved at least 50 metres away from water bodies and the animal waste on feedlots will have to be dealt with in line with local regulations.

Winter grazing, in which livestock are crowded onto narrow strips of land to graze and then moved to the next strip when feed runs out, has garnered attention for poor animal welfare and environmental outcomes. In particular, grazing on steep slopes has led to soil erosion and grazing near waterways has led to animals covered in mud and polluted waterways. The new rules will require consents for any winter grazing performed on a paddock with a slope of more than 10 degrees and each strip must be at least five metres away from any waterway.

"It is expected farmers will adjust their practices to lower-risk activities so fewer consents than this will be required," the Cabinet paper stated.

The best way to minimise further water pollution is to reduce livestock numbers - a predictably unpopular suggestion among farmers. While the Government hasn't gone so far as to directly mandate a reduction in herds, new rules will slow or stop the rapid intensification of most forms of agriculture. The country's dairy herd increased 70 percent between 1994 and 2007, putting increased pressure on the environment.

Now, costly and slow resource consents will have to be obtained by farmers wishing to "carry out more than 10 hectares of land-use change to dairy farming, carry out more than 10 hectares of land-use change from woody vegetation or plantation forestry to pastoral farming, expand irrigation by more than 10 hectares on dairy farm, expand area of intensive winter grazing on forage crops above a historical baseline [or] expand area of dairy support above a historical baseline," according to the Cabinet paper.

Lastly, the over-use of nitrogen-based fertilisers has also polluted waterways. In response to this, the Government has put in place a hard cap on the use of such fertilisers. Now, pastoral farms in New Zealand cannot use more than 190 kilograms of nitrogen fertiliser per hectare per year.

For context, MfE officials told Newsroom that the average Canterbury farm uses around 225 kilograms per hectare per year, while farms elsewhere generally use far less. The Government argues that farms can still be profitable on fertiliser amounts of as little as 183 kg/ha/year and that number will drop with technological improvements. In 2023, these settings will be reviewed, opening the possibility of stricter rules as usage falls or stronger enforcement if farms don't comply.

Farm plans to be mandatory

In order to manage this complex array of regulatory measures and rules, farms will now be made to create farm environment plans, with a special focus on freshwater. These plans - supported by Dairy NZ and other lobby groups, as well as environmental advocates - will map out the route for farmers to reduce their water pollution to the legal levels.

Those levels have also been lowered in some instances. While the Government consulted on and decided against, for the time being, introducing bottom lines for the amount of DIN or phosphorus permitted in waterways, a new, special bottom line for E coli. in popular swimming areas will come into effect. Nitrate and ammonia toxicity levels will also be strengthened to protect 95 percent of species in waterways, up from 80 percent.

Regional councils, which bear responsibility for enacting the Government's freshwater policies, will have nearly seven years to finalise their plans. This is a one-year extension for councils from the September proposal, but still a significant shortening of the deadlines they had previously been operating under. Some councils were expected to take until 2030 to finalise their plans to enforce the 2017 freshwater National Policy Statement.

The Government found there will be a net benefit of $193 per year over the next 30 years, adding up to a total of $3.8 billion. That figure takes into account the quantified benefits, including swimmability in waterways ($2.4 billion by 2050) and retaining wetlands ($3.9 billion by 2050), which total up to $7 billion. It also takes into account the estimated costs, including the cost of excluding stock from waterways ($1.1 billion by 2050) and additional costs to local government ($1.5 billion by 2050), totalling $3.2 billion.

By delaying the decision on DIN and phosphorus bottom lines and allowing farmers to retain permanent fencing that doesn't meet the new requirements, the Government managed to carve about $3.4 billion in costs out of the package.

Stakeholders supportive

The response to Thursday's announcement has been broadly positive, although most stakeholders found one or two issues to disagree with.

Fish & Game characterised the reforms as "a significant step forward in reducing pollution in our rural and our urban waterways caused by intensive farming and through council's neglect".

"The rules, if enforced, will achieve the aim of preventing further decline by establishing for the first time a cap on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and strengthening the nitrogen toxicity attributes and bottom lines to protect 95 percent of species," chief executive Martin Taylor said in a statement.

"However, the postponement for 12 months of a dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) bottom line is a concern considering that 13 out of the 18 scientists wanted it set at ecosystem health levels of 1 or lower. We expect that science will prevail.

"Over the last eight months DairyNZ has advocated for an evidence-based and pragmatic approach to freshwater regulation. We are pleased to see Government has listened and made significant changes to some of the more controversial elements of their original proposal," DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle said.

"Looking at where the policy has landed, it appears that the Government have taken a better approach in terms of scientific rigour and practicality for farmers on the ground."

Mackle praised the delay in DIN regulations and the rollback on moving permanent fencing, but said the 95 percent protection standard for nitrate toxicity was still too high.

Federated Farmers broadly agreed.

"While we’re still working through the detail, the high level policy decisions indicate the Government has heeded some of the rural sector concerns," Federated Farmers spokesperson Chris Allen said.

However, he warned, "The proposals still have some sharp edges that will bite our farmers and rural communities at a time when we need it least."

Follow-through a concern

The Environmental Defence Society (EDS), long a critic of the country's freshwater policies, was also congratulatory.

"This package of changes to the present regulatory settings largely delivers on election promises to deal to pollution of our rivers, lakes, streams, estuaries and wetlands. Those commitments followed strong calls from the wider public for more integrity behind our clean, green brand," CEO Gary Taylor said.

"The changes build on and refine earlier reforms implemented by the National-led government and are aimed at maintaining and improving freshwater management by providing more national direction and environmental bottom lines by prescribing a set of detailed attributes. Sound science and extensive consultation has informed the development of the package."

Both Gary Taylor and Martin Taylor warned that the ball was now in councils' courts, and effective implementation of the policies was not guaranteed.

"Attention now needs to turn to implementation. That will be done by regional councils developing freshwater plans to drive improvements over time. But just how will we make sure that regional councils deliver?" Gary Taylor said.

"In terms of implementation, there is still a lot of work to be done by regional councils and, if some regional councils operate as they have in the past, then they could scuttle New Zealand's reform agenda as we have seen with Horizons and the One Plan over the last decade," Martin Taylor said.

EDS and Fish & Game are both calling for an independent Freshwater Commission, something Parker said could be on the table in the future.

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