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Water policy: RMA tweaks for councils, Overseer to stay

Newsroom logo Newsroom 5 days ago Eloise Gibson
a close up of a rock next to water © Provided by Newsroom NZ Ltd

As New Zealand waits for details of national policies and environmental standards on freshwater, a conference has heard how regional councils will get faster plan-making powers - and that Overseer is here to stay.

As part of a bid to get freshwater reforms in place in the regions by 2025, regional councils will be able to follow a simplified two-step hearing process under the Government's proposed reforms of the Resource Management Act.

The Government hopes this will enable councils to get new freshwater policies in place by 2025, rather than 2030, which is apparently how long it may take some councils to deliver stricter rules at the moment.

The update on freshwater policy came from Martin Workman, head of the water directorate at the Ministry for the Environment, who was speaking at the Environment Defence Society’s pre-conference workshop in Auckland.

Workman also told the conference that Overseer – the much-maligned nitrogen management tool – is here to stay for the moment, despite its imperfections

Doing the two-step

The original plan was for the Government to unveil details of a new National Policy Statement (NPS) and National Environmental Standards (NES) on freshwater at the EDS conference this week, but those documents are now expected to be released for consultation "in the next few weeks".

Workman told the workshop that the reforms were yet to get through Cabinet, however he expected the Ministry for the Environment would be able to start consulting people around the country on the proposed changes in September.

The Government’s goal was to have the new policy package in place by mid-2020, he said – including the NPS, NES and changes to the Resource Management Act to allow regional councils to move more quickly on getting their regional rules compliant with the new requirements.

Under the current RMA hearings-and-appeals regime, it would be 2030 before many councils would be delivering their improved freshwater management rules, he said, whereas the two-step hearing process should let councils have compliant plans in place by 2025.

The RMA would also be tweaked to clarify that resource consents that impacted on freshwater quality could be reviewed when the regional water rules were changed, he said.

Though he didn't give full details, Workman said the NES would include national regulations on feedlots, rules on managing the intensification of land use (to stop worsening water quality problems), and measures to protect wetlands and streams, including requiring stock to be kept out of waterways.

Together, the NPS, NES, RMA reforms and measures such as bringing agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme are part of a significant package of reforms that the Government is pitching as making land use more sustainable.

... most farmers were getting to grips with what they needed to do to reduce nitrogen run-off. But some believed it was in their interests to use as much fertiliser as possible, to boost their entitlements if pollution limits are set on a 'grandfathered' basis.

However, the chair of the Freshwater Leaders Group, John Penno (co-founder and former managing director of dairy company Synlait) told the EDS workshop the reforms would not be as strong as his group of agribusiness and environmental leaders agreed was needed.

Penno said he did not think the Government would be quite brave enough to go “all the way” with its reforms.

People will be able to compare the proposals with the Freshwater Leaders Group’s recommendations, because the group's report will be released at the same time as the policy changes are announced.

Speaking in his personal capacity – not as the freshwater group's leader— Penno said his own view was that strong action was need to stop water degradation getting worse in the next five years, before the policy changes are embedded in regional rules.

Penno said "the last thing" that was needed was more dairy conversions or tree felling that would harm water quality in those catchments already under pressure. While conversions might benefit a few individuals in the short term, putting further pressure on waterways was not in the interests of most farmers in already-stretched catchments, he said, because it would only make it harder to turn things around once stricter rules were in place.

Penno said most farmers were getting to grips with what they needed to do to reduce nitrogen run-off. But some believed it was in their interests to use as much fertiliser as possible, to boost their entitlements if pollution limits are set on a 'grandfathered' basis. He called for strict limits on farms that were wastefully using nitrogen, and said he did not support a grandfathering approach (where farms’ entitlements to discharge nitrogen are pegged to what they’re already doing).

It's not sayonara for Overseer

The Ministry for the Environment’s Workman addressed nitrogen issues in his talk, too – making it clear to the workshop that the Overseer farm nutrient modelling tool was not going anywhere, despite serious flaws having been identified by both the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and some scientific modelling experts.

Minister for Primary Industries Damien O’Connor announced at Fieldays this year that $43 million in funding from the Budget would be used to upgrade primary sector decision support tools such as Overseer.

The funding would help improve the accuracy of Overseer's estimates of nitrogen loss and to boost the range of farm systems and conditions it models, O’Connor said at the time.

In response to questions about the model, Workman told the EDS workshop Overseer was seen as a “crucial tool” in regulating nitrogen discharges.

“It’s still the best tool we’ve got,” he said. “Are we going to wait for perfect tools before we take action?…this Government and the previous one agreed that we can’t do that,” he said. “We are investing in making it as good as we can, as fast as we can.”

Asked whether that included taking public ownership to make Overseer more transparent, Workman was coy: “That’s being looked at,” he said.

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