Getting fresh with water policy

A comprehensive approach to sorting issues on management of  New Zealand's rivers and streams....
A comprehensive approach to sorting issues on management of New Zealand's rivers and streams. Photo from ODT files.
When it comes to freshwater management, urban and rural water must be treated equally - whether it is a stream in Karori or one in the Maniototo.

That is the belief of Federated Farmers water and environment spokesman Ian Mackenzie, who described the national policy statement for freshwater management as the most comprehensive approach to sorting environmental issues for New Zealand's freshwater resource.

The new national standard for fresh water was a ''tough regime'' and there was ''absolutely no free pass for farming whatsoever'', the Mid-Canterbury farmer, said.

''Farmers and townies are in the same boat when it comes to freshwater quality,'' Mr Mackenzie said.

It carried significant implications for agriculture but it also meant the pain - ''and there will be some'' - would be shared equally.

While the rural sector was generally welcoming of the national policy statement, others were not so convinced.

Concerns had been expressed from the organisations such as Forest and Bird, which was concerned the standards might encourage some councils to propose that rivers and lakes be allowed to become ''toxic'' to wildlife.

The Green Party's water spokeswoman, Eugenie Sage, said there was a ''freshwater crisis'' and more than 60% of monitored river swimming sites were unfit for swimming.

''The Government's national bottom lines won't fix it and instead allow irrigation and intensive agriculture to expand,'' she said.

Effective regulation, that prevented further degradation and improved the quality of the country's rivers and lakes, was desperately needed, she said.

Dr Mike Joy, a senior lecturer in ecology and environmental science at Massey University, told TVNZ's Breakfast programme it was a ''completely backwards step'' for the country's fresh water.

Labour's water spokeswoman Meka Whaitiri described it as ''just window dressing'', and said the strategy would fail, because the Government had set incomplete and weak minimum standards.

Environment Minister Amy Adams has hit back at criticism, saying claims were wrong that the standards would lead to deterioration of fresh water.

''In 2011, the Government required councils to maintain or improve the water quality in their lakes, rivers, wetlands and aquifers across their region.

''If their water quality is already above the national standard announced [last week], it cannot be allowed to deteriorate.

''Where a water body is below the national standard, councils and communities will need to ensure that the standard is met over sensible and realistic timeframes,'' Ms Adams said.

The national standards were focused on targeting bodies of water that were below those levels and did not affect those where councils had chosen a higher standard, she said.

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said the changes balanced economic growth with environmental sustainability.

''It's not an either-or situation, we need both. Primary industries contribute more than 76% of our merchandise exports and largely depend on fresh water, while tourism also relies on the beauty of New Zealand's water bodies.

''We all want sustainable and profitable primary industries. That will means changes to some of our farming practices, but I know farmers are up for the challenge,'' he said.

DairyNZ's strategy and investment leader for sustainability, Dr Rick Pridmore, said there was a firm commitment from the industry and from farmers to implement the new standards.

''Where there's an agreed problem that needs fixing, we'll get in there and do our bit,'' Dr Pridmore said.

The key challenge would be applying the standards at a local level and clever solutions would be needed to fix problems in a way that kept farmers in business and delivered what communities wanted for their local waterways.

It would be about collective action by dairy farmers but it was also going to involve work by councils, community groups, environmentalists, other farming sectors and scientists, he said.

A single focus on dairy farming was not the answer. There would always be a range of factors affecting water quality.

''You need to have everyone in the tent looking at what they can do to help,'' he said.

Fonterra acting group director co-operative affairs Sarah Paterson said the announcement was an important step towards a nationally consistent approach to managing fresh water.

It also gave communities the ''tools'' they needed to make decisions about their waterways.

Regions across the country had been grappling with the challenge of setting workable environmental limits.

Setting national water standards would provide greater clarity on the science that needed to underpin environmental limits, she said.

New Zealand Groundspread Fertiliser Association president Stuart Barwood said the Government was to be congratulated for ''bringing some common sense'' to the water debate.

''New Zealand Inc. must move forward as a team, not a collection of disparate tribes.''

Dr Marc Schallenberg, a freshwater scientist at the University of Otago, said the water quality limits were an ''adequate'' minimum level of guidance for what the water quality of New Zealand's lakes and rivers should and could be.

He hoped the ministry would build on those limits by soon adding more ecological indicators to the limits framework.

He was concerned the limits framework did not take a whole catchment approach to managing nutrients in aquatic ecosystems.

''Viewed with a cynical eye, one could conclude that the Government's focus on nitrate and ammonium toxicity, instead of the ecosystem health effects of these pollutants [as well as the lack of phosphorus limits for rivers], is a loophole for dairying, which leaks large amounts of nitrogen from cattle urine and fertilisers into surface waters and groundwaters - a major cause of the deterioration of our fresh waters,'' Dr Schallenberg said.


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