Address to the National Freshwater Conference

Address to the National Freshwater Conference

Monday 11 February 2019, Te Wharewaka o Poneke, 2 Taranaki St, Wellington

I had the good fortune of being in Karitane some of the weekend, just north of Dunedin. It’s a beautiful little spot and it’s been such a magnificent summer there, as in many parts of the country. People have been out enjoying the water and swimming. It reinforced to me how essential freshwater is to us. And I reflected on the aptness of the name we've given our freshwater programme, which is Essential Freshwater: Healthy water, fairly allocated. 

This is going to be a big year for freshwater policy in New Zealand. I think there is a general acceptance that the last election settled the issue politically, and that New Zealanders voted for rivers that support ecological health and Te Mana O Te Wai – the integrated and holistic wellbeing of a water body. They expect to be able to pop down to the local river or beach in summer and put their head under without the risk of getting crook. We know from the fact that water stayed as an issue throughout the last election that people are vexed with how our waterways have degraded.  

Surveys released over the summer period highlighted that freshwater is the greatest environmental concern for most New Zealanders, even surpassing climate change. I think there's now a general acceptance across communities that we need to get back to the simple point where you can safely put your head under in your local waterway – and an understanding that if your local waterway and my local waterway are clean enough to swim in, then all our rivers will be clean.  

We believe that the public is right, that it is their birthright to have rivers that are clean. We think that there is a confluence of values from the Te Ao Māori world view and the Pākehā world view we both want very similar things when it comes to water quality.  

This time last year we initiated a lot of work in the freshwater space. We set up a new taskforce within the Ministry for the Environment. Cabinet required that all of the ministries that have a hand in this – the Ministry for Primary Industries and various others – provide some of their highest quality policy people to the freshwater taskforce. So we have a cross-agency team which also includes people from the Treasury, Department of Conservation, Te Puni Kōkiri, Office for Māori Crown Relations: Te Arawhiti, Department of Internal Affairs, Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment, and regional councils.  

We set up a network of advisory groups. There's a Science and Technical Advisory Group with freshwater scientists. There's a Freshwater Leaders Group with quite a diverse mix of people, including members from environmental NGOs and farming groups, and it's chaired by John Penno ­­– who is the ex-CEO of Synlait, and has a strong environmental ethic himself. We have Kahui Wai Māori which is drawn from various Maori groupings.  

Action in 2019

This year we're delivering our first wellbeing budget, which will be reinforcing the connection between our environment and our wellbeing. You will also see us starting to fund activities that change land use practice.  

You're going to see action not just on water but also on climate, with the Zero Carbon Bill coming forward, and on waste reduction and biodiversity. Of course, improvements in any of these domains generally results in improvements in the others.  

There'll be opportunities for public input on these issues as we try and move towards a circular economy. At long last, you're likely to see a product stewardship agreement for tyres and changes to the waste levy. We're also going to be progressing reform to the Resource Management Act. 

However, my personal priority is freshwater, so I thought today I would go into that a bit further. This year we aim to produce amendments to the National Policy Statement (NPS) for Freshwater Management and a new National Environmental Standard for Freshwater Management. These together will direct councils to toughen up on freshwater quality.  

Regional councils tell me that, in some areas, more than 90 per cent of farmers are fully complying with the current rules. And yet we've got things going backwards still. Clearly some of the rules need to be toughened up. The new rules will both reduce contamination and increase protection, and there will be limits to certain activities that lead to the contamination of freshwater.  

The mapping of risks to ecosystem health and individual catchments is improving, and this will inform where new measures should be targeted. We are trying to develop a concept around at-risk catchments, although the name may change to better describe what we are doing. But essentially, we want to stop things getting worse by identifying the most problematic areas, and then we can start to turn them around.  

The agenda includes how to provide better for Te Mana O Te Wai and ecosystem health. We're looking at potential mechanisms for reducing sediment. I think most of us know the two biggest problems are nutrient loadings and sediment.  

Better wetland protection

We want better protection for wetlands. I think it's astounding – decades after New Zealand lost 90 per cent of our wetlands outside of national parks – that last year’s State of the Environment Report disclosed that a twentieth of the remaining 10 per cent was lost in the prior 10 year period. Wetlands are now amongst our rarest ecosystems. We’re still losing them, and some of the rest are being degraded.  

Coming changes

We're going to have technical changes to support more effective implementation of rules by regional councils. We're going to have mechanisms for managing agricultural intensification. Some of you may have heard me lament that the draft NPS of Judge Sheppard, promoted over a decade ago, was spiked by the last government because that NPS had controls on increasing intensification of agriculture. And, of course, without those controls we saw further intensification of agriculture, which has made some of these problems worse. 

We’re also looking at potential direction around the use of farm management plans, good management practices including stock exclusion, and riparian management. And we are proposing rules to control the adverse effects of particularly risky activities such as intensive winter grazing, hill country cropping, and feedlots.  

We’ll be consulting on these changes later this year. We're aiming for July. Some people are complaining about haste. To be honest, it's a three-year electoral term. We have a mandate to change these things. We've got a responsibility to exercise power, and unless we crack on this year, we actually won't get it done before the next election. So, we're in a bit of a hurry.  

A catchment approach

In every catchment, there is of course an environmental limit on how much contamination, such as nitrogen discharges, an ecosystem can carry before it's damaged significantly. We have to come up with options for equitably sharing the responsibility for keeping nutrient discharges below the limit.  

This means that we’ve got to have everyone across a catchment involved – farming, point source discharges such as wastewater plants, or occasionally freezing works. We need to take into account both current land use and potential future development of under-developed land. If we don't, we'll actually cause unfairness to those with less developed land. In New Zealand's case, that's disproportionately Māoridom, who hold a lot of under-developed land.  

We're starting with nitrogen discharges because there's already some ability to measure, model and monitor these. Overseer, some of you will be aware, was recently reviewed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. It is an imperfect tool, but it's probably the best in the world. And we're going to improve it.  

Even so, there's considerable complexity involved. How do you deal with vegetable growers, and rotational crops? What do you do about sloping land, compared with flat land? How do you properly integrate different land types into the Overseer model? Or deal with someone who's got very deep soils compared with someone who's got shallow soils over an alluvial base that feed directly into an aquifer? We've got to find a way to allocate the authority to take and use water fairly.  

This year we'll be discussing nutrient allocation issues, but we're not going to finish on extractive water allocation issues this year.  

A long-ignored problem

It’s sad to hear more disappointing stories about the state of our rivers and beaches. At one level I think it's good that we're ripping the scab off this particular problem, because it seems as a society we've been able to ignore it for far too long. I can't understand why. Perhaps it's because the gradual degradation has been relatively slow year by year. Maybe it's because we've got such a large land mass and relatively sparse population. Or maybe it's because we've had a somewhat fictional image of ourselves which has not been met by reality.  

We've known since 2004 at latest, when Morgan Williams wrote his Growing for Good report as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, that we've had a serious problem from increased nutrient and sediment loads in our waterways. It was 13 years between then and the 2017 election. Interestingly, the Save Manapouri campaign took a similar time, from 1959 to 1972, before that issue was raised up the political agenda. It got into public and political consciousness, and then the problem got solved. So maybe it takes a while to raise public awareness. Anyway, we can't ignore freshwater problems any longer.  

Smothered estuaries

The Oreti River discharges into the New River estuary, and there have been reports over summer of how this estuary is being suffocated by macroalgae, a seaweed species. There's a real problem in Southland estuaries, caused by sediment load in the main, but also nutrient loads. In some of the Southland estuaries, the sediment that's been deposited over the last decade or two is deep and smothering. I have visited some of these estuaries and it’s a very sad sight.  

The New River estuary is on the doorstep of Invercargill. It's one of the closest estuaries to the town, and it's not all agricultural pressure that's caused the degradation. There's been reclamation to the margins, there's a landfill nearby, and no doubt some pressure from the city as well. It's a complex problem but it definitely isn't under control. Sadly the conditions here aren't unique, and many of our estuaries have been smothered by excessive sediments and nutrients, from the Far North to the bottom of the South Island.  

In the North Island, the Kaipara harbour has big problems particularly at the northern end with sediment load. On the East Coast, particularly after a rain event, they've got terrible pollution of their estuaries from sediment. Our wetlands which help filter the water before it's discharged have all but been lost. We really do have to turn this around.  

A local fisherman came to see me at Karitane over the weekend. He spends some time up north now and was lamenting the fact that so much of the inshore fishery on the East Coast of the North Island is degraded as a consequence of on-farm activities.  

When I speak with other fishers, they tell me about the sediments suspended offshore which decrease the light into our kelp beds, and that our kelp beds are not thriving as they used to. It’s harder for our bivalves to survive, our little shellfish, because they're working so hard filtering out the sediments that they ought not to have to cope with. 

However, I'm heartened by stories of communities coming together. The Aparima is another Southland catchment which has got some problems, though not as bad as the New River estuary. But there's a big group of farmers who are coming together to try and help sort out these problems. Around the Kaipara harbour we see similar issues. Around Karitane, my own little patch, there is an estuary group, and people go out and plant the river margins. I think there's an increasing awareness amongst those who are using the land that they're having an impact as well.  

So the national direction package that we are going to be consulting on will strengthen protection for these valuable and sensitive ecosystems.  

Poor farming practices

I know that photos of cows in mud upset many responsible farmers. There are many such photos from recent years. It happens, and upsets many responsible farmers because they don't like to be labelled as being irresponsible, when they're taking steps to protect their land and their environment and their livestock.  

However, I believe we shouldn't minimise the adverse impacts of some farming practices. Yes, there are problems with urban water quality, and I'm going to come back to that. But the reality is about one per cent of New Zealand's waterways flow through urban areas where 86 per cent of the population live.  

Those who are making decisions about rural land and farms have the power to make a huge difference. I applaud the willingness of progressive leaders in the primary sector who are working on solutions to these issues, and I think we've turned the corner with the leadership of many of the agricultural lobby groups. They agree we need to do more and move more quickly. But I emphasize that we must protect the environment for its own sake.  

This is not about money, but it also has a monetary benefit. If we want to obtain the best price for the things that we produce and sell to the rest of the world, we actually have to be true to our brand. We know that international consumers, as well as many New Zealanders, are increasingly seeking out products with environmental credentials, and they're willing to pay a premium. They will not accept images such as those of cows in the mud. We can and must do better.  

I want to reiterate that this is not about destroying farmers’ livelihoods, or red tape for the sake of it. But no one has a right to pollute our rivers or aquifers, or our beaches. We're putting in place new rules to cut out the worst of farming practices and creating a fair playing field for those who act responsibly. Otherwise, they can sometimes be out-competed by someone who is willing to push things that much harder.  

Lower impact farming systems

We're also using arms of the state. I am an Associate Finance Minister, and so the Statement of Intent came past me for Landcorp, or Pāmu as it is now called. Pāmu is New Zealand's largest farmer and so I put into its Statement of Intent, with the agreement of other Ministers, a desire for them to measure the profitability of lower impact farm systems.  

Pāmu is already doing some really good work. It is experimenting with alternative systems, and they've done away with palm kernel. They've got lower input systems so they have slightly lower gross production, but their cost structures are also lower. The effect on profitability is not significant. As a result, they are maintaining profitability while improving environmental performance, and that's wonderful.  

We must be encouraging them, and using them to verify what it is they're doing, in order to take those models out to other farmers. Other groups in New Zealand are also doing wonderful work. For example, there's a group near Hamilton that is measuring climate change emissions and the effects on profitability of limiting those.  

We must work within the limits of our land and our environment. So we're working to really explore how we can achieve the objectives of sustainable land use while having viable and productive rural communities.  

Role of new technology

I believe technology will play an increasingly integral role in helping us sustainably manage our natural resources. No one wants to waste water or nutrients – because that's what they're doing when it's being lost to waterways. Through technology I think we will be able to manage our land practices better, avoid waste, and have improved efficiency within environmental limits.  

We're working to target existing science and research effort better. We're investing in finding, quantifying and publicising solutions and technologies that can improve water quality. Some of these are quite big-ticket items. In the last Budget, we approved $5 million of extra taxpayer funding into Overseer, which will improve it.  

At the same time as encouraging new technology, we must build a system that allows much faster adjustment of rules in response to new science and technology. I'm told that there are more moisture probes sitting in farm sheds than are actually used. Why is that?  

What is holding us back from adopting new technologies? I know that some of our larger corporate farmers, including Ngāi Tahu, are experimenting with the use of sensors. I saw a report out of Lincoln last year that said that if you're more careful with the application of water on the Canterbury Plains, then just a three or four per cent decrease in the volume of output can reduce nutrient losses by between 20 and 25 per cent.  

Urban water challenges

Freshwater is not just a rural issue. Urban waterways are generally better than they were decades ago, largely because sewage discharges are not as bad. There have also been continuing efforts to separate sewage from stormwater, so that there is less often stormwater intrusion into sewerage systems. Better sewage management is actually the main reason why urban waterways overall are in a better state than they were decades ago. But that's not to say they're perfect.  

I spend a fair bit of time in Auckland now. Auckland has a pretty poor record of pouring sewage onto beaches, and some of the estuaries smell. When I'm up in Auckland I live in Grey Lynn, and there is a local estuary at Cox's beach, which smells every time there is a rain event.  

Luckily, Auckland City Council recognises the problem, and is bringing forward around $850-900 million of expenditure to improve separation of stormwater from sewage and to avoid that sort of pollution. 

We've heard stories in New Plymouth where residents in Bell Block have seen dead eels and fish resulting from sewage overflows into one of the local streams, the Mangaiti stream. The council blames the outdated local infrastructure, but say that cost constrains its ability to fix the problem. Wastewater management is one of the core responsibilities of local government, and I don't think central government should be picking up the bill. It’s the responsibility of local councils to sort that one out.  

But we need to be looking at how we can do urban water management more efficiently. My colleague Minister Nanaia Mahuta is leading the Three Waters review (drinking water, wastewater and stormwater) to look at efficient service delivery, the environmental impacts of urban water management, and at some of the health problems that we've had with urban water.  

Voluntary and community action

Voluntary work is happening. There’s a little mini wetland that's been installed by a local farmer down in the Aparima catchment. A wetland probably existed there 50 years ago, but a lot of this area is now intensively farmed, primarily for dairy. But people want their kids to be able to swim in this area, so one of the farmer’s contributions is to create a wetland which he's planted out. It’s only a few years old and it will already be trapping an enormous amount of sediment.  

So these personal efforts of people are important as are the community efforts. We know that both the QEII National Trust and the Landcare Trust are doing some amazing things with their local communities. Through the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry for Primary Industries, there's a number of funds such as the Freshwater Improvement Fund or the Sustainable Farming Fund, which are supporting people's efforts.  

There are great examples around the country. The Hohepa Homes Trust in Hawke's Bay is restoring the lower Taipo Stream. It's created a wetland adjacent to the stream, which is a tributary to the Ahuriri estuary within the Napier City area. They've got a team that's growing plants, and it's lovely. It's also giving work to people with intellectual disabilities, enabling them to further contribute to society. So, you know, if we all work together, we can turn this around.  


We want to have new rules in place by next year. We'll be consulting on these later in the year. I urge you to have your say if you are in favour of the proposed rules, not just if you are critics. We actually need the power of the people behind us.  

Another area where you can have your say is in local elections ­­– you can encourage people to vote. We've got an appallingly low turnout of voters for local body elections now. Encourage your friends and family to vote in those elections, and to pay attention to what candidates say they're going to do environmentally.  

In summary, New Zealanders want action on freshwater. I've said before that I think I'll have failed in my duties as a politician if I don't do my utmost to make a difference while I'm in this job. I'm determined to put frameworks in place that will see material improvements to our freshwater in five years.