Govt sets out path to better freshwater

  • Nick Smith

The Government’s new National Policy Statement (NPS) on Freshwater Management will deliver cleaner lakes and rivers with ambitious new targets for improving their recreational and ecological health, Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith says.

“The new policy confirms the Government’s national target of 90 per cent of rivers and lakes being swimmable by 2040. The policy has been strengthened following consultation by requiring regional councils to set regional targets and regularly reporting on achieving these. This ambitious plan will require 1000km of waterways be improved to a higher grading each year. It is being supported by new national environmental regulations governing activities like fencing stock out of waterways and forestry.

“The new policy also tackles nutrient discharges. It makes explicit that nutrients need to be limited to control algae growth and establishes a new process for regional councils to manage instream levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.

“The ecological health of waterways is important for aquatic life, mahinga kai and recreational fishing. The new policy requires councils to take action when measures of aquatic life drop below newly specified levels.

“The major controversy over the proposals was over the grading system for swimmability, which replaced the old requirement for waterways to be wadeable. The policy now includes all four statistical tests used for determining which rivers are excellent, good, fair, intermittent or poor, and clarifies the risk as <1 per cent, <2 per cent, <3 per cent, >3 per cent and >7 per cent respectively. The Government wants a robust system that protects public health when people go swimming but that is not so cautious as to unnecessarily discourage people from enjoying the outdoors. The only other jurisdiction that grades rivers for swimming is Europe, and our new gradings are stricter.

“This is the latest step in the Government’s ongoing reforms to improve freshwater management. We introduced national water metering regulations in 2009, the first NPS in 2011, the Freshwater National Objective Framework in 2014 and these changes that are focused on primary contact, ecological health and nutrient management.

“The cost of meeting these new water quality improvements is $2 billion, which will fall on farmers to fence waterways and reticulate stock water, councils in improving their wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, and taxpayers. The Government has invested $400 million in freshwater cleanup projects, including the 33 projects announced yesterday.

“The new NPS will be gazetted tomorrow. Councils have until 31 March 2018 to set preliminary regional targets, and until the end of 2018 to finalise their contribution.

“The effectiveness of the NPS in delivering better water quality nationwide depends on regional council implementation. Today I am releasing reports from my Ministry and from the Land and Water Forum (LAWF) on implementation that show progress is being made. There were no nitrate limits when National came to office but now these are in place in 20 per cent of catchments. The proportion of catchments with limits on water takes has grown from 20 per cent to more than 80 per cent.”

The next steps for the Government are finalising the details of the national stock exclusion regulations and developing new policy for the allocation and pricing of freshwater, with the Technical Advisory Group reporting in December.

“The only reason we have been able to make such significant progress on these freshwater reforms is because of the work of LAWF. I wish to acknowledge the 63 member organisations who have worked collaboratively on these proposals over many years.”