Ecan agrees on water quality management

They're here. The anxiously-awaited Environment Canterbury water quality rules have been decided.

They introduce controls on nitrate leaching that some farmers had feared could force changes to their land uses.

The Land and Water Regional Plan was agreed at ECan's meeting on Thursday. It covers a broad range of activities that affect the quality of water in rural and urban areas across the region.

Recommendations from hearings commissioners were accepted by the ECan council.

Commissioner Prof Peter Skelton said when the plan's rules were in full effect next year, farmers and land users would have to manage their operations and improve their environmental performance so the decline in water quality was reversed over time.

''This is a core focus of the plan because activities in rural areas greatly affect the quality of our water, much of which is found underground,'' Prof Skelton said.

''However, the plan also deals with water quality issues in urban areas and a variety of land-use activities. These range from on-site wastewater to storing hazardous substances.

''There are a number of rules aimed at cleaning up stormwater and sewage overflows - particularly in Christchurch. We are working effectively with the territorial authorities and other stakeholders to address these issues.

''Declining water quality is a major issue in Canterbury and one that could take a long time to reverse in some areas,'' he said.

''These rules are a good start. Some farmers and other land users need to improve their environmental performance. Many are already taking responsibility, which is to be applauded.''

The plan focused on outcomes rather than inputs, Prof Skelton said.

''Land users know their own businesses so they won't be told what to do with their land. Whatever they do, however, they will need to meet the rules.''

There are limits that apply now, based on nutrient allocation zones. Those with more serious water quality issues have stronger rules.

''By 2017, we anticipate that the plan will contain a series of numbers setting out good management practices across a range of land types, climates and land uses,'' Prof Skelton said.

''Many organisations are involved in developing those numbers and we expect them to be available by 2015.''

The plan set the framework for community water goals, a collaborative approach taken through the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.

Commissioner with policy responsibility for water David Caygill said the strategy asked what outcomes the community wanted for its waterways, and the targets it should aim for.

''We set a number of environmental outcomes and worked back from those to see how land users can help achieve them,'' Mr Caygill said.

In areas where the environment had been harmed, limits in the plan would help address this.

In each catchment, communities were involved in developing more detailed plans and rules for local solutions.

Good progress was being made in Selwyn-Waihora, ECan said, with Ashburton-Hinds, Lower Waitaki-South Coastal Canterbury, Upper Waitaki and Wairewa/Lake Forsyth close behind.

The plan also considered land stability, flood protection and biodiversity.

The council's decision to accept the plan would be notified on January 18. It would become operative later in the year.