Critics say new freshwater bill will result in more polluted waterways

The Resource Management (Freshwater and Other Matters) Amendment Bill will relax rules for...
The Resource Management (Freshwater and Other Matters) Amendment Bill will relax rules for keeping farm animals out of waterways. File photo: RNZ
By Kate Green and Niva Chittock of RNZ

A bill changing freshwater protection rules is prompting more accusations of the coalition government prioritising profit over protection.

The Resource Management (Freshwater and Other Matters) Amendment Bill will make a series of "targeted changes that can take effect quickly ... while the government develops new legislation to replace the Resource Management Act 1991", according to RMA Reform Minister Chris Bishop.

"The bill will also speed up the process for preparing or amending national direction. The current process for making or amending national direction is unnecessarily onerous, costly, and it takes too long."

Agriculture Minister Todd McClay said the government was "backing" New Zealand farmers.

"Improving primary sector profitability is key to remaining competitive internationally and getting value back into farmers' back pockets."

If passed, the bill would mean councils no longer need to abide by the "hierarchy of obligations" (that is, the order of priorities) laid out in the existing legislation when issuing resource consents.

It would mean a relaxation of rules for keeping farm animals out of waterways - a move the government said would reduce costs for farmers - and more permissive rules for intensive winter grazing.

It would also suspend requirements for councils to identify areas of precious biodiversity as new Significant Natural Areas (SNAs) and include them in district plans for the next three years, a piece of advice over which Hoggard previously faced criticism.

The bill follows the repeal of the Natural and Built Environment Act and the Spatial Planning Act in December, and the introduction of the Fast-track Approvals Bill in March, with organisations like Greenpeace dubbing the changes "a war on nature".

Could the rule changes affect our drinking water and our health?

Greenpeace spokesperson Amanda Larsson said the rule changes would result in more polluted lakes and rivers, and more water species' extinction.

It would also likely increase the amount of nitrogen - a main component in fertiliser and stock urine - entering waterways, which could directly impact the quality of drinking water.

"Nitrate contamination of drinking water has been connected to increased risk of health issues such as bowel cancer and pre-term birth," she said.

GNS Science research found almost 60 percent of freshwater sources analysed had nitrate-N concentrations of more than 0.9 milligrams per litre.

The current national standard allows for a maximum of 11.3 milligrams per litre, but some overseas studies have suggested it should be as low as 1 milligrams per litre, finding a correlation with colo-rectal cancers for anything higher.

"We have been finding that even public drinking water supplies in rural Canterbury in particular are approaching levels that are increasing the risk of pre-term birth - 5 milligrams per litre," Larsson said.

"Ecological studies have also shown that above 1.0 mg/L, that the environmental quality of stream habitats are affected and biodiversity begins to decline."

Hoggard said it was important to remember that many farmers had already excluded livestock from a "substantial portion" of waterways throughout the country.

"I don't believe they get enough recognition for that."

He said it would be up to regional councils to determine how winter grazing was managed. "Where there are no local rules, the onus would be on farmers to voluntarily follow good practice."

Otago University Wellington research fellow Marnie Prickett said removing priority from environmental implications when issuing resource consents was an "alarming trajectory".

"It says to regional councils, you don't have to consider - will this protect people's drinking water? Will this be consistent with protecting a healthy waterway?

"We can read between the lines there and see that it's actually just going to put commercial actions back up the chain and take away that really necessary weight that we've now got to protect people's drinking water sources and the health of their rivers."

Removing protection 'unacceptable', iwi says

Removing Te Mana o te Wai - the fundamental concept of the Essential Freshwater regulations introduced by the previous government in 2020 - was absolutely unacceptable for Ngāi Tahu, rūnanga chair Justin Tipa said.

The High Court at Christchurch recently ruled Canterbury Regional Council unlawfully granted an irrigation consent in Ashburton, in part because it failed to properly take into consideration how it would affect the nearby freshwater and coastal waterways.

"The [current] hierarchy places the health and well being of the wai, of freshwater first. And that's a critical protection, particularly where freshwater ecosystems are under serious threat," Tipa said.

Ngāi Tahu was absolutely supportive of economic development and wanted to see the regions thrive, but not at the expense of the environment, he said.

"If we continue to blindly over-allocate our freshwater resources and use it in a way that's not sustainable, it's not going to benefit anyone. We can strike a better balance."

Freshwater, and the wider natural environment, had been mismanaged for decades, if not centuries, he said.

It was time to change that and take a more intergenerational approach, instead of working to three-year political cycles.

Incentives more helpful than regulation, farmer says

A farm owner says farmers are sick of rules being "forced upon us" and want to inspire change.

John Burke and his brother Rick own Pukekauri Farm in Katikati in the Western Bay of Plenty. The sheep and beef farm covers 300 hectares.

The brothers' environmental restoration journey began 25 years ago. The water quality was poor, running clear through protected land at the top of the catchment, but dirtied by sedimentation as it passed through the farm.

"We're farming pastoral land on really steep, erosion-prone sites," John Burke said.

In the early days, there was "no riparian planting, no wetlands, it was a bit of a mess", he said.

"So progressively, over that time, with the assistance of the regional council and specialist advisory services, including ecological input, we've retired what we call the red zone areas of our farm."

They planted the edges of waterways and retired some steep areas, instated large setbacks along waterways and restored eight wetlands.

These days, the water runs clearer, and deposits far less sediment at the bottom - and the brothers are not losing money.

"By taking those red zone areas out of our farm, we have not reduced our total pastoral farming profit, we've actually maintained our total profit - not profit per hectare, but total profit - which tells us that the land we took out was contributing nothing to the bottom line, and in many instances was running at a loss."

But farmers needed support to put up that initial cost, and access to knowledge, Burke said.

Catchment groups could be a good way to pool knowledge and organise work, but funding was "critical", he said - and it needed to start now.

"It's taken us over 20 years. The sooner you start, the sooner you finish.

"To procrastinate and not get on with it, we're just pushing it out."

He said incentives would be more helpful than regulation.

"Farmers, people in general, have so much antipathy to regulation, stuff being forced upon us. We want to inspire change."

After its first reading, the Resource Management (Freshwater and Other Matters) Amendment Bill will be sent to the primary production select committee for consideration.

Bishop said he chose that committee over the environment committee due to the high workload the latter was already facing.


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