Essential Freshwater

Speech notes for Essential Freshwater launch.

E nga mana

E nga reo

E nga rangatira ma

tena koutou

tena koutou

tena koutou katoa

To the many powers

To the many voices

To the many leaders here today

Greetings to you all

I acknowledge:    my Cabinet Colleagues Kelvin Davis, NZ First’s Tracey Martin and my former flatmate Damien O’Connor.

Greetings to former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the co-leader of the Greens Marama Davidson, other MPs, Regional Council Chairs, District Council Mayors, leaders from Maoridom, farming and environmental NGOs, councillors and government officials. 

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome  – thank you all for making the effort to be here today. 

We are truly lucky in New Zealand to have such special rivers and lakes.

Ours is a young and mountainous land. Our steep, fast flowing rivers are replenished every second of every day with fresh clean water coming from the mountains. Those waters carry and wear smooth our gravel riverbeds, which are rare in the world. Our rivers sparkle and sustain life.

What is more joyous than watching children play in our rivers and lakes?  The splash and shine of clean water, the laughter as kids float on tyre tubes or boogie boards. 

Every year, millions of New Zealanders and visitors take joy and pride in wandering along a riverbank, in eeling or trout fishing, or holidaying amid our stunning natural beauty. 

What is more awesome than the power of a fast flowing river  captured by Petrus Van Der Velden in his Otira Gorge paintings,

or more idyllic than Evelyn Page’s swimming images,

or more tranquil than Graham Sydney’s paintings of Central Otago mountains and ponds.

It’s not surprising that as a nation we have such a deep connection with our rivers, our lakes and our beaches.   

I have long believed that for most people, the most important river is the one they live closest to and use.  

Maori express this so well in their mihi as they name the awa and maunga they identify with. 

Yet sadly the quality of our water has deteriorated in recent decades. 

Increasingly intensive methods of farming have led to outcomes that few expected, but which we have known about as a nation since - at the very latest – 2004.   

I don’t want to focus on the negative but, before I outline the Government’s blueprint to improve the quality of our freshwater, I would not be doing my job if I skipped over how bad things have got in parts of New Zealand.         

Excessive nutrient levels – mostly from fertiliser and livestock effluent - are polluting many rivers and aquifers. 

This map shows that high nitrate levels are concentrated in the areas where farming is most intensive – look at the Waikato, Hawkes Bay, Canterbury and Southland. 

It’s not only dairy cows. Sometimes it’s intensive beef production, sometimes deer farming, occasionally market gardening or new subdivisions.  

Forestry practices vary hugely between the good and the bad. 

Some winter grazing practices are clearly unsustainable.  

The soil compaction is bad for the land.  

And there is no doubt that the sediment runoff is smothering the macroinvertebrates in rivers.  

The loss of these precious soils is also severely degrading our estuaries. 

Shellfish beds have been killed and the adverse effects extend to our inshore fisheries. 

It is not all farmers, and most are trying to improve. 

However in some regions 95% of farms are said to be fully compliant with Regional Council rules, yet problems are still far from solved.  This is solid evidence that more effective regulation is part of the answer.   

Urban areas are far from perfect. While only one or two per cent of waterways are in urban areas, and most point source discharges from factories and sewage outflows are better than they used to be, stormwater intrusions are still causing major overflows of sewage systems and polluting beaches.  

Amongst the worst has been Auckland, so it is pleasing to see our biggest city has brought forward $850 million of capital expenditure to substantially fix this.  

As a nation we have been kicking the can down the road on these problems for years.  

The timeline in the booklet you all have shows how the delays since 2004 have allowed things to get worse, making the clean-up harder. I don’t have time to detail the reasons. The booklet does. It’s a sad tale. 

However, Sir Alan Mark tells me that it took from 1959 to 1972 to Save Manapouri.  13 years for public consciousness to drive the political mandate for the Kirk Labour Government to stop the ruination of lakes Manapouri and Te Anau. 

At the last election – 13 years after Morgan Williams produced his pivotal 2004 report as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment - all the political parties agreed - during a televised debate - that we have passed environmental limits for nutrient and livestock pollution in some intensively-farmed catchments.  

I was so pleased that water stayed a top-line issue throughout the campaign, and that the new Government was elected with a clear mandate to turn things around.  

With that democratic mandate comes a duty to act. 

People are with us.  A recent survey showed that more than 80% of New Zealanders are worried about water quality and want it fixed.   

The latest data is at best mixed, with the macroinvertebrate index – the little critters that are indicative of a river’s health - showing the health of so many our ecosystems is still in decline.  

Earlier in the year, the state of the environment report had more bad news. 90% of New Zealand’s wetlands outside of National Parks were lost a century ago. Sadly, a 20th of those remaining were destroyed over the last decade. We’re still losing them. 

We all know we have to do better than this, both to protect the intrinsic values of the environment, and to protect the brand we rely upon both in tourism, and to maximise the sale price of the products we sell to the world. 

The primary sector is on board.  I thank the environmental NGOs, the farmers who are pitching in to help, and the farm leaders who are stepping up to lead their farmers towards better outcomes. 

These farm leaders are not always in an easy position and those who do truly lead need our support. Damien O’Connor will address the steps he sees as crucial in a few minutes. 

After the election we tasked the Land and Water Forum – known as LAWF - to provide us with advice on three core issues. 

  • How to stop the degradation getting worse
  • What allocation principles should be applied when allocating the right to discharge nutrient pollution in nutrient enriched catchments
  • The steps needed to control sediment loss

LAWF toiled wisely and I thank them for their work, which has helped understanding of the issues we face.

The Land and Water Forum, and Regional Councils, both recommended a focus on high-risk catchments.  We are. 

LAWF could not, however, reach agreement on the critical question of the allocation of the right to discharge nutrient pollution. 

This shows the limits of collaborative processes.  Sometimes the competing interests in the room cannot realistically be expected to reach agreement.

LAWF put themselves into abeyance and passed the baton to Government to resolve these hard issues. 
It’s our duty to do so.
We also have the benefit of some very practical advice from Regional Councils.
Government can only bring about change in land use practices through education, regulation or price.
We can’t afford to, and should not as a matter of principle, pay polluters to stop polluting.
When we took office we stopped the subsidy of large irrigation projects which would have further increased the intensity of livestock production.
We have progressed the Three Waters review to tackle urban water issues highlighted by the Havelock North debacle.
On education, we’ve increased funding for the sustainable farming and fibre fund, and in the Budget we approved $5m of investment in the Overseer tool needed to help manage farm impacts.
Also in the Budget we announced funding for a unit to improve compliance, monitoring and enforcement of the RMA.
While many of the on-farm changes will be voluntary efforts of farmers wanting to do better, OECD studies (and the NZ experience) prove more effective regulatory settings are an essential part of the answer.
We have a substantial body of work already under way. The Cabinet Papers that we have released today (which are appended to the documents you have) describe in some detail the challenge and the approach we are taking to fix the problem.
At one level it’s simple. Stop pouring pollutants into rivers and they clean themselves up. But while we know intensive land use is the main cause of the problem, the solutions are complex. 
We need to achieve fairness between developed and underdeveloped land.
This is especially important to Maoridom who disproportionately own the underdeveloped land. They don’t want their development aspirations to be frustrated.
We have set out the principles we propose to use to guide those discussions.
For the first time Government is expressly acknowledging that fairness to Maoridom requires us to enable the future development of underdeveloped land that needs water and nutrient discharge permits.
Government accepts this development aspiration. We are proposing practical solutions on a catchment by catchment basis.
We also need to achieve fairness between horticulturists, who grow the fruit and vegetables that we eat, and between the dairy, sheep, beef, deer and forestry sectors.
We want to maintain flexibility in land use, so as to maximise sustainable economic output for our country, but within environmental limits.

Reflecting the importance and complexity of the issues, we have put together a cross government taskforce of senior officials from:

  • the Ministry for the Environment
  •  the Ministry for Primary Industries
  • the Treasury
  • Maori Crown Relations: Te Arawhiti
  • Te Puni Kokiri
  • the Department of Internal Affairs
  • the Department of Conservation
  • the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment
  • and Regional Councils.

We know what the issues are.   Information and solutions will never be perfect.  Decisions must be taken. 

While government has primary responsibility, those decisions will be better with expert input from the civil society groups shown on the slide – Kahui Wai Maori, the Freshwaters Leaders Group, the Science and Technical Advisory Group, and the Regional Council chief executives.

You will see crossover membership to avoid siloed consideration.

Can I thank all those who have agreed to serve. You are a very impressive bunch. These groups begin their formal meetings today.
At the heart of our plan is The Essential Freshwater Programme and it has three objectives: 

  1. Stopping further degradation as soon as possible, so that we see material improvements in water quality within 5 years.
  2. Reversing past damage so as to restore all our freshwater ecosystems to a healthy state within a generation.
  3. Addressing water allocation issues to achieve efficient and fair allocation of freshwater abstraction and nutrient discharges, having regard to all interests including Maori.
    This is not a talk fest. The timeline in the papers shows our intentions.
    I will mention a few of the key steps.
            Improving the Freshwater National Policy Statement
    (Refer to slide)
            A new National Environment Standard
    (Refer to slide)
    This new national direction will be publicly consulted upon in 2019 and be in place by 2020.
    We will also: 
  • take targeted action in at-risk catchments
  • address Maori concerns and aspirations on a catchment by catchment basis, and
  • amend the RMA, including to enable more effective and timely implementation of the NPS and NES
    Our efforts will be integrated with our work on a billion trees, climate change, the three waters review, and increases in compliance monitoring and enforcement.
    The mechanisms are complex, but in essence its simple we’re going to make polluted rivers clean again.
    And you will all see noticeable and measurable improvements by 2023.
    That is our promise.
    Before I hand over to Damien O’Connor, I want to particularly thank the Southland farmers I met with a week or two ago. They are working to enlist the help of all 600 farms in the Aparima catchment to fix their problems.
    We share the same aspirations. For their kids to be able to swim in their local river. It’s not too much to ask.
    Ina parakoretia ai to awa kauranga,
    ko toku ano hoki,
    katahi ka waipuretia o tatou awa katoa.
    If your local river, and my local river, are clean enough to swim in, then all our rivers will be clean.
    Tena kotou, tena kotou, tena kotou katoa.