Speech to Rotorua Lakes Water Quality Symposium

Thank you for inviting me. I’ve been to these events on a number of occasions through the years, it’s really nice to see things progressing in a positive fashion. And to see progress being made on really complex issues.

This symposium is an example of all of the sections of the community coming together to reverse past damage and to restore our lakes and ecosystems back to a healthy state.   

As a government, we are committed to stopping further degradation of our freshwater – and that includes our lakes. 

We often talk about rivers, streams and groundwater when discussing water quality, but New Zealand is also a land of lakes, and the Government is very aware of this.

Our lakes are hugely important ecologically and are cultural and recreational icons. It’s staggering to think that we have over 700 lakes longer than half a kilometre, plus many smaller ones. Many of these are susceptible to sediment and nutrient contamination from surrounding land uses. Once a lake has flipped it is often very difficult to restore it to health.

Since 1998, the Rotorua Lakes Strategy Group, comprised of Te Arawa, Rotorua Lakes District Council, and Environment Bay of Plenty, has been committed to a plan of action to protect and restore the lakes.

As I will detail shortly, central government has invested huge amounts to help with lake restoration and protection here in Rotorua. This started under the Helen Clark Labour Government in 2008.

But this is not a solution that can be extended to all the nation’s struggling lakes. In the long run, there are better and more cost-effective ways to protect lakes from pollution.

Our Essential Freshwater package provides the framework for this by helping communities via their councils to take an integrated approach to their management of land and water, and to fix their priority firmly on achieving and sustaining water health.

As you may be aware, the package, introduced in 2017, has three key objectives. These are to:

  • stop further degradation of our waterways,
  • make material improvements within five years, and
  • restore our waterways to a healthy state within a generation.

I know there are lots of different ways you could describe that, and lots of scientific ways to measure it, but for me, it essentially comes down to whether or not the water is clean enough to swim in.

I was concerned a few years ago that, as a nation, we were close to accepting the current degraded states of many lakes and rivers. Many young New Zealanders will not have seen pristine waterways, and many recent migrants to New Zealand who come from places with more degraded environments will also be oblivious to just how clean they used to be. There is now a clear and widely accepted desire to do better. It has become apparent that clean lakes, rivers, wetlands, and estuaries are fundamentally important to most New Zealanders.

But we’re not there yet. The national water monitoring partnership, LAWA (or Land, Air, Water Aotearoa), recently published freshwater data for the period 2016 to 2021.

It shows that two-thirds of monitored sites are unsuitable for swimming based on World Health Organisation public health standards. That’s simply not good enough. Anyone should be able to go down to their local lake or river in summer and put their head under without getting crook.  If your local swimming spot and my local river or lake meet that standard, then all our waterways will be clean.

So how do we get there? Well, the Essential Freshwater Package was introduced to tackle these issues comprehensively, in urban and rural settings. The same standards are being applied to both.

The package has five inter-related parts. It’s the biggest change that we’ve seen to address the problem of degrading freshwater quality since the RMA was passed in 1991.

First, we have legislated for a new plan-making process, which will make regional freshwater plans more consistent, more effective, and faster. The process will be overseen by freshwater commissioners who are headed by an Environment Court judge.

These commissioners will evaluate the new land and water plans that councils are producing to meet the requirements of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020 (also known as the NPS-FM).

This latest NPS-FM is the second part of the Essential Freshwater Package. At its core is the fundamental concept of Te Mana o te Wai, which sets out a hierarchy of obligations on how freshwater may be used:

  • The first obligation is to ensure sufficient water quality to sustain ecosystem health.
  • The second is to meet human health needs.
  • The third, is to enable commercial and other uses after the first and second obligations are met.

The NPS-FM also sets minimum bottom lines across key measures of freshwater health (which it refers to as attributes).  Some of these attributes are new and some were already being used but have been strengthened.

Third, we have set new National Environmental Standards for Freshwater and, alongside these, have also brought in new regulations to, among other things:

  • exclude livestock from lakes and rivers, and
  • reduce the risks to freshwater from Intensive Winter Grazing.

The standards and regulations also include wetland protection and, for the first time, a limit on the amount of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser that can be used on grazing land.

Fourth, we legislated for the introduction of a Freshwater Farm Plan system under the RMA.  Over time, all farms above a size threshold will need a freshwater farm plan to manage their impacts on freshwater. I’ll say a little more on this in a minute.

Lastly, we established the Jobs for Nature fund.  There was already some money in the freshwater improvement fund, but we topped it up providing a total of $1.25 billion for a programme of environmental work as part of our COVID response.

This was at a time when the forecasts for unemployment were very dire. There were two projections, one with, and one without fiscal stimulus by the Government. The projected simulations without stimulus had horrendously high unemployment. We chose to pursue some fiscal stimulus to keep economic activity high, which was necessary for people to keep their jobs. We did much of this through the wage subsidies, and some infrastructure, but we were determined that we weren’t putting it all into roads and hard infrastructure.  We wanted better environmental outcomes and that’s where Jobs for Nature came from.  When Kevin Hague recently retired from being Chief Executive of Forest and Bird after a whole career in environmental advocacy, he described this as being the biggest impetus towards enabling communities to come together and take action for better outcomes, that he has seen in his lifetime.

So, those are the five main planks of the Essential Freshwater Package. After we introduced them, we heard concerns about technical aspects of the Intensive Winter Grazing, Stock Exclusion, and Wetlands rules. We agreed to put them out for another round of consultation and, as a result, we are making some changes.

For example, the work of quarries (providing aggregate for our roads and for concrete) was unintentionally impacted by the initial wetland rules. So, we amended those rules to make it clear that it was not the intention of the regulations to stop quarry operations.

We are making announcements shortly regarding those finer details for both the wetland rules and also the stock exclusion rules, we’ve improved our maps now so we can do that better. 

Regional councils, I’m pleased to say, are taking very positive steps towards implementation of the Essential Freshwater reforms. The council progress report I received in June really made my heart sing.

Under the NPS-FM, councils have until the end of December 2024 to notify their new plans. They have started the process of engaging with tāngata whenua, to get their input on the waterway attributes most important to them locally and are working with their communities more broadly.

Councils are collaborating to share resources. For example, for Intensive Winter Grazing, Environment Southland has led a lot of that work because these issues are most pressing down there. Other Councils are cooperating rather than having to reinvent all aspects in each region.

Councils are conducting new research, modelling, and mapping, and monitoring, to better understand what is causing degraded water quality.

Serious challenges remain.

For example, in the Ashburton Lakes in South Canterbury at least eight lakes are nutrient-enriched, and some are in danger of tipping into a permanently eutrophic state.  Environment Canterbury is working closely with scientists, iwi and local communities, to better understand how land uses and nutrient loads are affecting the lakes’ ecology. They are developing additional voluntary measures to reduce the nutrients flowing into the lakes, and an action plan to stop further degradation and restore the lakes. Work is under way to ensure that progress can be made quickly. This includes a peer review of the estimated impact of the proposed voluntary farm system mitigations, and work with environmental scientists to identify which lakes may require remediation, on a lake by lake and catchment by catchment basis. A cost and impact assessment will help set priorities.

Of course, there are other lakes around the country under similar pressure, and voluntary working groups cannot be expected to bear the brunt or provide all the solutions on their own.

As you’ll be aware, we’re also reforming the overall resource management system. We have agreed that the substance of Essential Freshwater and of the NPS-FM, including Te Mana o Te Wai, will be carried over into the new system.  We will ensure freshwater work is carried forward and implemented. There’s a lot of effort and cost involved, and we must make sure it’s not lost.

Our Freshwater Farm Plans are a new tool in the resource management system and over time they are expected to make a big contribution by enabling farmers to meet council freshwater rules in ways tailored to their particular farm, while meeting the needs of their local catchment.

We think they have the potential to help farmers act practically to reduce farm impacts on freshwater and freshwater ecosystems.

We will start the roll-out of Freshwater Farm Plans on a region-by-region basis. We are doing it this way because it’s too big a step to try and start everywhere all at once, and also because there will no doubt be lessons learnt along the way.

Farm plans will be approved, monitored, and enforced by regional councils, not by central government. We help set up the regulatory framework, but councils are responsible for developing and providing the catchment context that will allow for them to be used. 

There has been a concern amongst some in the community that was just going to require good management practice. That’s not correct. The farm plans are an implementation tool. Farmers will still need to be driven by council policies and rules to achieve good water quality in their catchment. Good management practice may be sufficient for this in some catchments, and that is fine, but in some it may not be sufficient, and farm plans will have to operate within the appropriate rules framework.

I’m not an apologist for regulation. Let’s be blunt, rules and regulations would not be needed if people were already achieving the needed environmental outcomes when everyone was left to their own devices. The fact that you need rules and regulations should be no surprise to anyone. The OECD have studied this for years and their experience shows that, in the absence of environmental regulation, there are always some people who push things too hard. Sometimes that’s deliberate, but more often it’s because there isn’t a full understanding amongst individuals of the cumulative effect of activities done well, and often within a catchment, which can still have an environmental impact.  That’s true in cities as well as in the rural areas.  

Rules are important, particularly around some of the riskiest practices that need to be regulated. I think that one of the lessons of recent years is that community action is just as important, as is shown in Rotorua. This brings me to catchment management groups.

One of the things we’ve funded through the Jobs for Nature package is a huge increase in the number of catchment management groups through the funding (at not huge cost) of the facilitators who bring them together. Some of our recent announcements have been around our funding of the national bodies that locally co-ordinate the catchment groups working with Regional Councils to spread knowledge and best practice.

Which brings me back to Intensive Winter Grazing. There’s been a bit of noise about this lately. We are working closely with industry, and we’ve rolled out a revised version of the Intensive Winter Grazing regulations. Done poorly, the environmental effect can be extreme.

Key councils – especially in Canterbury, Otago, and Southland – are working with farmers now to help them prepare for next winter.

Because of the efforts of farmers, councils, and central government, I think the adverse effects of intensive winter grazing are now reducing and we have seen improvements in practice.

Freshwater Farm Plans will help manage intensive winter grazing, but it is not intended that they be a substitute for rules around intensive winter grazing. Even when freshwater farm plans are in place, some famers undertaking intensive winter grazing could still need to get a resource consent.

Concerns have been aired about the number and cost of consents required for Intensive Winter Grazing above the slope threshold of 10 degrees. There’s been a number bandied around that 10,000 resource consents will be needed nationally. It’s wrong. We know the number will be far lower.

As of Mid-October, there were just 11 resource consent applications in Southland so far, four of which have been granted. When they’re granted, they can cover multiple years, so we don’t think it is too onerous.

We know that councils are not advocating for a delay, and they’ve been working with farmers while prioritising the most high-risk activity for consenting.  I also understand that only 6.5 per cent of the forage crop land that is winter grazed in Southland is steeper than 10 degrees, so I don’t think it’s too onerous.

Anyway, we’ll keep an eye on it and if it gets out of control, we will look at it again. But in the meantime, we’re not proposing to change the requirement.

We all have obligations to protect freshwater, as I said at the start. The water quality attributes that we have for our waterways apply in both rural and urban areas. Although urban areas only make up about one percent of our catchments by length, they are the most degraded. This is not just because they are sometimes at the end of the stormwater pipelines or overflowing sewage. It is also because of the high levels of sediment and other contaminants that they collect from construction sites and streets.

There are many examples of sediment being lost to estuaries and rivers.  We’ve also covered over streams that should have been left open.

So, the same rules now apply in the town as in the country.

The NPS-FM requires councils where necessary to develop action plans to control sediment and restore streams that have become clogged with sediment. The Ministry for the Environment and NIWA have produced guidance to help councils with this. We are also setting up a Sediment Control Team within the Environmental Protection Authority which will be working with councils to help them do better on sediment management in our urban areas.

Well, that’s probably enough talk for now about the national regulatory system. I’d now like to hone in on local progress concerning freshwater matters, most notably The Rotorua Te Arawa Lakes programme.

As you know, this programme is a partnership between the Crown, Bay of Plenty Regional Council, Rotorua Lakes Council and Te Arawa Lakes Trust. The programme’s objective is to see a reduction in the amount of nutrients entering the Rotorua Lakes to levels necessary to reach community agreed targets for lake water quality by 2032.

For context, in March 2008, Prime Minister Helen Clark agreed to contribute $72.1m towards total programme costs of $144.2m, with the balance of funding provided by Bay of Plenty and Rotorua Councils.  Fifteen years on, fantastic progress has been made. I know there’s still some way to go, but I’ve always had a view that you have to have exemplars that give people hope, because if you can show it can be done then others will say, well it should be done, and then expect that it is done. It’s fantastic that you are making progress on the four “priority” lakes: Rotorua, Rotoiti, Rotoehu and Ōkāreka. I know the wider programme addresses twelve lakes in the Rotorua district.

Governance is provided by the Rotorua Te Arawa Lakes Strategy Group. In April of this year, the strategy group proposed two resolutions:

The first was to seek my agreement as Minister for the Environment, for $10m of deed funding to be reallocated from the Incentives Fund to the Rotoiti/Rotoma sewerage scheme funding shortfall. This was on the basis that the Rotorua Lakes Council commits to being part of the funding solution for the ongoing Lakes Water Quality Programme through the investigation and consultation of a new Rotorua Lakes Council targeted rate with proposed implementation for July 2023.

The second resolution was to seek my agreement, as Minister for the Environment, to retain $6.5m for Lake Tarawera, from the Freshwater Improvement Fund. 

On 7 August, I agreed to both resolutions, subject to receiving a Letter of Assurance to confirm that the Lake Rotorua incentives scheme will be reimbursed and that the 100 tonne reduction in nitrogen target will not be compromised. A letter of expectations has also been sent to the Strategy Group.

Later today, I’ll be meeting with the new Mayor of Rotorua (Tania Tapsell) and the new councillors who now sit on the Rotorua Te Arawa Lakes Strategy Group. They have a big job ahead of them.

Achieving better water outcomes is difficult. It’s why I initially got involved in politics. In those days, it was about the threats to Otago rivers stemming mainly from hydro dams. Prior to becoming a politician, I also did a lot of work as a lawyer in the freshwater space. I’ve been doing this for 20 years as a politician too.  I have been worried that, despite all our efforts, we’d still be going backwards when it comes to management of our freshwater.

But you know, in the last six months I’ve had a new-found confidence, based on what I’ve seen, that we are turning it around.  Just six years ago we were having a debate about whether the standard we expected for our rivers should be set at wadeable or swimmable; whether we were going to have contact recreation that was acceptable up to the knees, but not above the head. We’re now past that point.

We’ve society agreement and alignment across all sectors. This includes the rural sector, urban centres, Iwi Māori, catchment management, and community organisations on the ground, everyone - it’s well aligned - and so I’ve got a lot of confidence that we’re going to turn it around.

With this broad consensus, and Te Mana o Te Wai as our over-arching ethos, I think I can say that the future is finally looking up for our streams, rivers - and lakes. 

Tēnā koutou, Tēnā koutou, Tēnā koutou katoa