New Zealand: Fresh plans for freshwater – government proposes reform

Last Updated: 18 September 2019
Article by Kirstie Wyss and Lucy De Latour
Most Read Contributor in New Zealand, September 2019

Freshwater management has been a long-standing political hot potato. Regional councils around the country have been busy ensuring they fulfil their functions in relation to water quality and water quantity, and implementing the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) (in its various forms) since its introduction in 2011. This is often in the face of competing views from iwi, industry, the farming community, environmental interest groups, and the urban community.

On 5 September 2019, the Government released its "Action for Healthy Waterways" discussion document for consultation, which includes:

  • Amendments to the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA);
  • A draft National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management;
  • Proposed National Environmental Standards for Freshwater;
  • Proposed National Environmental Standards for Wastewater;
  • An updated National Environmental Standard for Sources of Human Drinking Water; and
  • Draft Stock Exclusion Regulations.

This package forms part of the Government's wider RMA reform project and follows in the wake of a number of other proposed RMA national planning documents. The amended NPS-FM, NESs, and regulations are anticipated to come into force in 2020.

A brief overview of the key proposals and consultation timeframes are set out below.

RMA amendments

The proposed amendments to the RMA seek to introduce a new freshwater planning process that will require councils to have new plans in place, that give effect to the new NPS-FM, by 2025.

To achieve this relatively short timeframe, amendments are proposed to the "normal" Schedule 1 planning process in the RMA, whereby Government-appointed Commissioners would form a panel with local councillors and tangata whenua representatives to consider proposed plans, with restricted appeal rights.

Full details on this aspect of the proposal will be available when the Bill is introduced to Parliament in the coming months and feedback on the RMA amendments will be sought at that time.

Draft National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management

The draft NPS-FM is intended to replace the current NPS-FM. In a nutshell, the draft NPS-FM seeks to:

  • Strengthen the requirement to manage freshwater in a way that reflects Te Mana o te Wai, so that the health and wellbeing of the water will be put first in decision-making; providing for essential human needs, such as drinking water, will be second; and, other uses will be third.
  • Provide for a more holistic view of ecosystem health.
  • Strengthen the requirement to identify and reflect Maori values.
  • Support renewable energy targets by exempting major hydro-electric schemes from some requirements.
  • Introduce new compulsory values and attributes, to be monitored and maintained or improved.
  • Requirements to protect threatened species and habitats.
  • Provide for a higher standard for swimming in summer.
  • Protect urban and rural wetlands and streams, including prohibitions on draining or developing wetlands and restrictions on piping streams.
  • Improve management of water allocation including setting minimum water flows and reporting on water use.

The draft NPS-FM also includes new obligations for territorial authorities to include provisions in district plans (at the next review of the plan) to address cumulative adverse effects of land use resulting from urban development on waterbodies and sensitive receiving environments.

The draft NPS-FM proposes that the final decisions by councils on changes to policy statements and plans to give effect to the draft NPS-FM must be publicly notified no later than 31 December 2025. Where regional policy statements and plans already implement the draft NPS-FM, regional councils are not obliged to make changes to wording or terminology merely for consistency with it, but the onus is on the council to show this.

Proposed National Environmental Standard for Freshwater

The proposed NES for Freshwater seeks to provide nationally-consistent rules for the ways particular activities or resource uses are to be carried out in relation to wetlands, river bed infilling, fish passage, and farming activities.

The proposed NES for Freshwater includes rules that:

  • Ensure all farmers and growers have a farm plan to manage risks to freshwater by 2025.
  • Restrict any further intensification of land use through interim measures until all regions have operative freshwater management plans. From June 2020, changes such as new irrigation or conversion to dairying will only happen where there is evidence it will not increase pollution.
  • Reduce nitrogen loss in catchments with high nitrate/nitrogen levels within five years, through interim measures until all regions have operative freshwater management plans.
  • Provide standards for intensive winter grazing, feed lots, and stock holding areas.

Proposed National Environmental Standard for Wastewater

A proposed NES for Wastewater seeks to improve ecosystem health by better managing stormwater and wastewater. This includes setting minimum standards for wastewater discharges and overflows, and requiring that all operators follow good practice risk management.

Updated National Environmental Standard for Sources of Human Drinking Water

Amendments to the National Environmental Standard for Sources of Human Drinking Water seek to strengthen the requirements to assess and control risks to drinking water sources to ensure that drinking water is not contaminated by land use activities.

Draft Stock Exclusion Regulations

The draft regulations set minimum requirements for excluding stock from wetlands, lakes and rivers more than one metre wide, in flat and gently-rolling (low-slope) areas within five years, or three years for dairy cattle and pigs; and in other areas where the concentration of cattle or deer is similar to dairy stocking rates.

For large rivers and streams (more than one metre across) lakes and wetlands, a setback of five metres, on average, across a farm is proposed.

Feedback is being sought on where the setback should be measured from, and appropriate criteria for allowing exemptions from the regulations, for example, where a river cannot feasibly be fenced.

Consultation

The proposals and discussion documents are available on the Ministry for the Environment's website here. Submissions close on Thursday 17 October at 5pm.

Although it is unclear from the discussion documents, it appears that this is the only opportunity for consultation and submissions on the content of the draft NPS-FM, the proposed NES for Freshwater; and the draft Stock Exclusion Regulations. Due to the significant implications of these documents, those people with a view on the various proposals should submit. As the submission will be the only opportunity to provide a view on these proposals, it will be important that any submissions are clear about any changes sought (including seeking specific amendments), and the reasons for those changes.

The proposed amendments to the RMA will be subject to a Bill and further consultation on the changes will be sought through that process.

Further consultation on the proposed NES for Wastewater and the amendments to the NES for Sources of Human Drinking Water will also be sought in the future once detailed proposals have been drafted. No dates have yet been set for this.

Due to both the number of matters being consulted on and the timing for the closing date of submissions (just a week after the local body elections) we expect councils and other interested parties will have a lot of work to do over the coming weeks.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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