Meeting ministers may bring clarity on freshwater rules: regional councillor

A date has been set for what has been called a critical meeting between the Otago Regional Council and new government ministers.

Rachel Brooking. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Rachel Brooking. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Council chairwoman Gretchen Robertson said RMA Reform Minister Chris Bishop and Environment Minister Penny Simmonds had yet to give the council any clarity on how the government’s promised changes to national freshwater rules could affect the regional council’s nearly completed land and water plan.

The ministers had not provided any clarity on what rules specifically were expected to change either, she said.

There was also no clarity on how much of the plan might need to change, she said.

Cr Robertson, who late last year called for an urgent meeting with the ministers, has said the council was still working towards its June 30 notification date for the plan.

The forthcoming meeting with the ministers was scheduled for Monday next week, she said.

And it was possible Agriculture Minister Todd McClay, also the Minister of Forestry, or an adviser, could attend.

Meanwhile, Labour environment spokeswoman Rachel Brooking has called on the council to continue on its present path and notify its land and water plan at the end of June.

"A government cannot change regulations by simply issuing a press release", she said.

"We do not know what the government intends to change regarding water regulations."

Late last year, Mr Bishop confirmed the government intended to "review and replace" the — in parts controversial — National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020 (NPSFM 2020) during the present term.

In a December 13 letter, he said the hierarchy of obligations contained in the Te Mana o te Wai provisions of the NPSFM would be a target of the review.

"Our intent is to clarify that consent applicants do not have to demonstrate how their individual activity adheres to the hierarchy, and to disapply the hierarchy from council consent decisions."

Mr Bishop went on to say every council, including Otago’s, was being granted a three-year extension on their freshwater planning instruments.

And several councillors publicly called on the organisation to take the time.

Ms Simmonds did not respond to Otago Daily Times questions last month, including what aspects of the NPSFM 2020 were likely to change and how those changes would affect Otago’s land and water plan.

She did not say whether she had any reservations if the council notified its regional plan mid-year based on the national policy statement under review.

Ms Brooking, on the other hand, said the coalition government appeared muddled when discussing the Essential Freshwater policies and regulations that aimed to fix water quality.

"It is astounding and retrograde that the government would want to pull back on that aim", Ms Brooking said.

"I am hopeful that any review and changes to freshwater regulations are minor, relate to implementation and do not detract from the objective of prioritising the health and wellbeing of freshwater.

"The minister [Ms Simmonds] in answers to oral questions has referred to a ‘balanced’ approach to improve environmental outcomes — it would not be ‘balanced’ to allow short-term economic benefits of pollution to override the health of our rivers, a resource used by all."

She said the present NPSFM provided "an appropriate balance" by specifying a hierarchy of obligations — those of Te Mana o Te Wai — "first, recognising the health of the water body; second, the health needs of people, such as drinking water; and third, the provision of social, economic, and cultural well-being".