Action for Healthy Waterways: Opportunities and Implications

The Government is taking a more proactive and hands-on role in freshwater management in the next phase of reforms.

At the end of May, the government announced a package of reform on freshwater management called Action for Healthy Waterways. This announced package relates to water quality matters, with water allocation to be the subject of future reform.

These reforms show that central government are taking a more prescriptive and directive role in freshwater management. This reform package is likely to present opportunities and have potential implications for a wide range of parties that use or manage freshwater, in both rural and urban areas. Significant work will be required by Regional Councils and communities to implement the new package announced.

What are the main features of the announced package?

The guiding vision for the Action for Healthy Waterways reform package is achievement of material  improvement in water quality within five years; and restoration of New Zealand’s waterways to a healthy state within a generation.

The package has five primary components:

  1. A proposed new National Policy Statement-Freshwater Management (NPS-FM);
  2. A proposed new National Environmental Standard (NES);
  3. Proposed section 360 Stock Exclusion regulations;
  4. Proposed amendments to the Resource Management (Measuring and Reporting of Water Takes) Regulations 2010; and
  5. Changes to the Resource Management Amendment Bill 2019 to provide a regime for certified Freshwater Modules in Farm Plans (FW-FP) and to alter timeframes for delivery of freshwater (regional) planning documents, such that:
    Councils are to notify regional plans to implement the NPS-FM by 31 December 2024 (previously 2023 in the Bill); and
    Councils are to make final decisions by 31 December 2026 (or 2027 at the latest).

These are the main features and when they would apply:

2020 – 2023 • Protection for wetlands, streams and fish passage

• Controls on intensive winter grazing

• Controls on feedlots and stock holding areas

• Interim restrictions on major agricultural intensification

• Reduce excessive nitrogen use through cap on synthetic fertiliser (190 kg N/ha/year)

• From July 2023, all dairy cattle and pigs must be excluded from waterways more than a metre wide

Within five years (2025) • All cattle, pigs and deer must be excluded from waterways in low-slope areas, some hill country wetlands, and all areas where there are intensive practices

• Minimum 3m setbacks from rivers and streams

• Mandatory and enforceable freshwater farm plans in place across most farms

• Requirements for real-time measuring and reporting of data on water use enter into force in two, four and six years

• New planning process for freshwater – regional plans

• New or updated regional plans are notified by 2024

The summary document of the Action for Healthy Waterways provides more information and detail on these five components. In particular, the timing and roll-out of the above components.

There is detailed information about the reforms on the Ministry for the Environment website. This information includes material tailored for specific parties (e.g. iwi, regional councils and different types of farmers). Furthermore, the website contains information on the costs and benefits; including central government funding initiatives.

Our observations

These reforms show that central government are taking a more prescriptive and directive role in freshwater management. The introduction of a national cap/bottom line on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser of 190 kg/hectare/year signals a central government willingness to setting quantifiable input controls – we observe this input approach is in contrast to the output approaches generally adopted by regional councils. We note the government has not decided on a national cap/bottom line for dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), and plans to continue working on this limit for another year. In reading the Cabinet Paper on this matter, it highlights the difficulty in setting a national limit which does not take into account local (catchment) characteristics.

Significant work will be required by Regional Councils and communities to implement the new package announced. In particular, the requirement to change or develop new regional plans by the end of 2024 and final decisions by 2026/2027 will be a substantial challenge. Some regional councils have still not fully implemented the first National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2011 (over nine years ago). While a more expedient plan-making process is proposed, the capacity of Regional Councils and communities to deliver on these processes and outcomes will be difficult. Central government has signalled a more hands-on role with Regional Councils, though limited details are available on this aspect.

Next steps

The government has indicated that more detail on this reform package will be developed and released over the next year. The key elements are:

  • July 2020: New National Environmental Standards, with some parts to take effect within 28 working days, and other parts not until inter 2021. These standards have been signalled to contain:
    • Protect existing inland and coastal wetlands.
    • Protect urban and rural streams from in-filling/reclamation.
    • Ensure connectivity (fish passage).
    • Set minimum requirements for feedlots and stockholding areas (to take effect in winter of 2021).
    • Improve intensive winter grazing practices of forage crops (to take effect in winter of 2021).
    • Restrict further agricultural intensification until the end of 2024.
    • Limit the discharge of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser to land, and require reporting of fertiliser use (to take effect in winter of 2021).
  • Second half 2020: New National Policy Statement will be released and come into effect later this year. This NPS is likely to include:
    • Freshwater to be managed in a way that ‘gives effect’ to Te Mana o te Wai through tangata whenua involvement including in development of regional policy statements; and by prioritising the health and wellbeing of water bodies, followed by the essential needs of people, and then other uses.
    • Improving degraded water bodies.
    • Maintaining or improving all other water bodies using baselines defined in the NPS.
    • Expanding the national objectives framework by:
      • Adding two additional values – threatened species and mahinga kai – as compulsory values.
      • Requiring that plan objectives describe the environmental outcome sought for all values.
      • Adding new attributes, specifically aimed at providing for ecosystem health, include Fish (IBI), sediment, Macroinvertebrates (MCI and QMCI), and dissolved oxygen.
      • Requiring councils to develop action plans and/or set limits on resource use to achieve these attributes.
      • A more stringent national bottom line for the attribute Nitrate Toxicity to protect 95% of species from toxic effects (up from 80%).
      • Requiring management of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) or dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP) as they relate to periphyton and other ecosystem health attributes; but no actual bottom lines set.
    • Avoiding any loss or degradation of wetlands and streams.
    • Mapping existing wetlands and encouraging their restoration.
    • Identifying and working towards target outcomes for fish abundance, diversity and passage and address in-stream barriers to fish passage over time.
    • Addressing in-stream barriers to fish passage.
    • Monitoring and reporting annually on freshwater (including the data used); publishing a synthesis report every five years containing a single ecosystem health score and respond to any deterioration.
  • Mid-2021 (estimated): Amending the RMA to require mandatory freshwater modules in Farm Plans for pastoral and arable farms of 20ha or more, and horticultural farms of 5ha or more. The timeframe for when this requirement would need to be complied with is not currently stated.
  • July 2023: Regulations requiring exclusion of dairy and beef cattle, deer and pigs from low slope areas accessing water bodies. Stock must be restricted from grazing within 3 metres from the banks of waterways.

If you have questions about how these changes will affect you, your organisation or your clients, Boffa Miskell’s freshwater specialists are here to help.

For further information please contact Claire Kelly, Louise Saunders, Dr. Tanya Blakely, Craig Pauling, Ian Boothroyd or Hamish Wesney

22 June 2020