Gains for farmers in water plan mediation

Working on a ''collaborative approach'' to deliver better water quality.  Photo from ODT files.
Working on a ''collaborative approach'' to deliver better water quality. Photo from ODT files.
The Otago Regional Council deserves credit for its water plan, writes farmer Stephen Korteweg.

While the Government's National Policy Statement (NPS) for Freshwater Management aims to achieve national consistency, with an appropriate level of regional flexibility, the Otago Regional Council has provided a plan that is made for Otago, informed by Otago and relevant to Otago.

Although it would be a stretch to call Otago Regional Council's plan change 6A farmer friendly, the plan is, at least, a workable way to ensure the region's water quality is maintained and/or improved.

A plan like this is important for Otago's water quality and economic wellbeing, and it is another step in the right direction for Otago communities.

Federated Farmers was one of the appellants of the council's decision on plan change 6A, alongside other primary sector representatives, and as a result of the appeal process we have come to a workable solution with the council and other parties.

Through the mediation process we achieved some important gains, including a commitment from the council to do a thorough catchment review of nitrogen leaching limits, to occur before 2020.

This will provide better clarity around what is expected, particularly for farmers on light, free-draining soils, who may be unable to meet the existing loss rates.

Mediation also resulted in clearer rules to help explain where compliance with water quality thresholds would be required, and where monitoring and measuring points are to occur.

Changes to the initial plan mean there is a clearer consenting pathway for farmers who were unable to comply even when they had clearly adopted best practice.

The terminology has been reviewed, and what were originally discharge quality indicators, ''limits'', are now called ''thresholds'' for permitted activities.

Previously, the term ''limits'' had constrained the council in consenting farms, which could not meet the thresholds.

The council and industry stakeholders are in agreement on developing guidance for farmers to determine whether they can comply with the discharge rules, and how the council will monitor and enforce them.

Fundamentally, it is about giving the best advice to farmers, and this provides an opportunity for the primary sector to work with the council on sensible implementation.

Federated Farmers has also sought safeguards, in early notification of catchment risks, for individual landholders.

This will provide an indication to those within catchments when data is trending in the wrong direction.

The information will be provided to identify what affected landholders need to focus on, for example riparian management, paddock management, and a change in practices.

Overall, the innovative approach taken by the Otago Regional Council is a welcome departure from the more precise regulatory directions provided for in other regions' responses to water quality issues.

The council's plan change, 6A, doesn't free rural land users of obligations around water quality, but it does leave room for some flexibility and innovation around how these obligations can and will be met.

As a result, instead of specific rules limiting stocking rates etc, 6A effectively looks at the water quality outcomes within a catchment, and uses these to dictate the extent of remediation.

This provides a framework for rural land users to find the best way of meeting their water quality thresholds, a win win.

This ''effects-based'' approach means farmers will have to put in a lot of work to understand their farming operations and implementing innovative and specific solutions on farm.

This is both good and bad, as it means that while the answers can be developed to address specific circumstances, it is up to the farmer to come up with the solutions on-farm.

The implementation of the plan is going to be critical if it is to be workable, and it will require a concerted effort from all parties.

Federated Farmers, along with a number of other stakeholders, has committed to working with the council specifically around implementation of the plan.

Given the importance of 6A to the region's economy and water quality, it is important that the execution is focused on assisting farmers to meet their obligations, and translating pages of policy speak into actions that are relevant to the individual's circumstances.

Federated Farmers' commitment is to make the plan as workable for farmers as possible.

We need to ensure the plan can adapt as the scientific picture of water quality develops, and recognise the practical realities and limitations on farm.

Overall, 6A is an actionable plan for maintaining and/or improving water quality in the rural areas of Otago.

However, the hard work is still to come for farmers who have clear environmental obligations to meet. Luckily, the council, other stakeholders and Federated Farmers have started on a collaborative path to deliver better water quality outcomes in the most efficient manner.

Stephen Korteweg is Federated Farmers Otago provincial president


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