Speech to Water NZ Conference Hamilton, 2019

Hon David Parker, Minister for the Environment - Speech

Event:         Water NZ Conference 2019
Date:          18 September 2019


New Zealanders value our freshwater. Our rivers, lakes, wetlands, and aquifers. How we care for and use them is a fundamental part of who we are.

Just three years ago we were scrapping over whether the standard for our freshwater should be ‘wadeable’ or ‘swimmable ’.

Now peak bodies like Dairy NZ and Beef and Lamb have embraced swimmability

Many of the places we swam in as kids are now not safe to swim in, and  we all want our kids to have the experience we had. 

The overwhelming majority of New Zealanders want us to act to clean up our waterways.

They share our objectives- to  be able to swim in their local river in summer and put their head under without getting crook – to gather mahinga kai and to fish – just as our parents and grandparents did.

We agree with them. Improving water quality was part of our governing agreements with NZ First and the Greens. We all campaigned for that and we are delivering.

We have to quickly stop it getting worse, and then reverse past damage. Just about everybody is on board with our phased approach to addressing water quality; to stop the degradation of our rivers and lakes, achieve a noticeable improvement in five years and restore our waterways within a generation.

Two weeks ago we announced our proposals to improve freshwater quality across New Zealand.

It is the biggest reform to improve water quality and ecosystem health, since the RMA was passed in 1991. 

What Environment Aotearoa 2019 shows us

Our latest state-of-the-environment report, Environment Aotearoa, is the first true synthesis report prepared by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ.

And what it showed was the impact our way of life is having on our freshwater.

It showed that about 70 per cent of the total river length in pastoral farming areas has nitrogen levels that can harm  aquatic species. Sources of pollution include livestock urine and dung, and fertiliser.

Erosion of pastoral land means we are losing around 80 million tonnes of soil into our waterways each year.

In urban areas, in some ways it’s worse. While only 1 percent of our rivers are in urban areas, they are polluted. About 90 percent of the river length in our urban areas has nitrogen levels that can harm sensitive aquatic species and is unsuitable for swimming due to risk of infection by campylobacter.

Runoff from hard surfaces includes heavy metals from vehicle wear – like copper from brake pads.

Wastewater is not properly separated from  stormwater  systems in some areas and so can  get into waterways and onto beaches. For example, in Auckland when it rains the central wastewater network currently overflows causing pollution of local waterways and the Waitematā Harbour at more than 100 locations and to the north-eastern Manukau Harbour at 14 locations. 

Clean water is crucial to our economy – our primary exports and our tourism both rely on our clean green image. And, wearing my trade minister’s hat, environmental issues including on water quality come up in our trade talks. Consumers in our most valuable markets are increasingly focused not only on what we produce, but how we produce their food. To maximise our income from our exports we need to address these issues.

So what is the current trend?

It’s mixed with many rivers still deteriorating.  The  Macroinvertebrate Community Index shows that almost twice as many rivers have been degrading over the last ten years, as are  improving.

It is a challenge for all of us – whether we live in towns or cities or in rural areas, there is work to do. We are all in this together and I reject the rhetoric of an urban-rural divide.

 We can make a difference

The good news is, some good things are happening.

I commend Auckland city for its bringing forward of nearly $1 billion of investment to stop the storm water overflowing into the harbour and contaminating beaches. When completed, the Central Interceptor will reduce sewage overflows on the western beaches in central Auckland and waterways on the isthmus by some 90 per cent.

Similarly I thank  the many farmers who have put effort into improving our waterways. Under the Dairy Accord 98 percent of waterways wider than a metre running through main dairy platforms have been fenced to exclude stock. We want to bring beef and deer farmers and dairy support blocks up to that standard.

Other farmers have moved to protect or restore their wetlands and have planted out riparian strips. Some need to catch up and match the example being set by those showing the way.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and I were impressed by the efforts being made by the Booth family - Andrew, Vicky, Richard and Sharon - when we visited their farm in August. They are working hard alongside iwi and other community members and iwi to reduce the sediment in the rivers that flow into the Kaipara Estuary. The Kaipara is so important to the local community, and nationally as a nursery for the vast majority of Snapper caught off the West Coast of the North Island.

They are not alone. There are lots of others doing similar things.

New Zealanders know that some obvious things help – planting alongside our rivers and stopping stock from getting into them.

But we also need tighter regulations and a national approach as the farming industry transitions to individualised farm industry plans.

Right now we have an opportunity to improve the trends we’re seeing. We do have choices in the way we farm. In the way we build our cities. We need to stop things getting worse quickly. I am convinced that if we can do that then New Zealanders will then give those who are causing the pollution ample time to put things right .

We all need to work together.  One of the complaints we heard last year from the rural sector was that we were not focusing enough on urban water issues. We now are and we have, at the request of the rural sector, put some emphasis on that. It’s hard to get the balance right because now at some rural meetings there are complaints about the focus on urban issues obscuring the debate they want on rural issues.

Everyone here today in this room can play a key role in helping to bring people together.

 Introduction to the package

The Action for Healthy Waterways package we announced has a number of proposed steps. Some will apply quickly – because we promised not to allow waterways to degrade further. Others – like the new NPS - take until 2025 to roll out and work prospectively from then over a generation.

Whatever the detail the direction of travel is clear – we need to reduce the quantity of nutrients and sediment polluting our waterways.

Freshwater degradation issues have been decades in the making, so we will ensure the pace of change is fair. And even with the best will in the world, it will take time to put some things right.

We are using the best science available to focus efforts. The measures need to be predictable and understood. They must be underpinned by effective regulation and enforcement.

The proposals have been developed around the concept of Te Mana o te Wai, which is already in the existing freshwater NPS.

Te Mana o te Wai is a concept for all New Zealanders. It refers to the intrinsic value of clean water. It prioritises first sustaining the environment, then human needs and then commercial uses.

The Government agrees with this concept. It is put into practice by requiring physical measures to protect or improve our waterways, for example to protect mahinga kai – eels, koura and whitebait.

A healthy waterway is an ecosystem that includes the plants, fish, birds, insects and other invertebrates in and on the banks of the waterway, with enough water flowing through it.

The six parts of our plan:

  1. An accelerated planning process for regional plans via an RMA Amendment Bill that gets its first reading next week.
  2. Ensuring ecosystem health through a new National Policy Statement for Freshwater and National Environmental Standard for Freshwater (NPS and NES).
  3. Holding the line and interim controls on intensification (the NES).
  4. Practice standards for agriculture (NES and regulations).
  5. Practice standards for urban areas (NES).
  6. Support for productive and sustainable land use (Budget 2019 package).

Action for healthy waterways – consultation

There has been a good turnout at consultation events. Those events have gone well, with a meaningful and constructive conversation between officials and those attending.

Some of the assertions about the proposals have raised the hackles of some attendees before they have attended the events.

Little wonder some are anxious when one leader in Federated Farmers said on day one –– this “will end pastoral farming” in some areas.

The President of Federated Farmers walked back from that the next day, but it got a headline in the meantime.

I want to take the opportunity to state for the record some things: 

This negative initial reaction has fed a misapprehension that we are not open to consultation about nitrate levels or other aspects. We are.

Indeed, we highlighted to farm leaders before the consultation was launched that the nitrogen attribute for the NPS would, in our opinion, be the most contentious issue and the hardest to land fairly. To try and deal with that misapprehension we emphasised in the days following that we are consulting on whether the NPS DIN attribute should be different in lowland streams than higher rivers and lakes.

We are also aware of concern about how the interim rules to hold the line might impact upon on land use flexibility. It is complex, because in future we do need to ensure that high nutrient dischargers are bringing their pollution down, while enabling flexibility of land use for low nutrient dischargers. However, we can’t allow total discharges to increase in already over-allocated catchments in the meantime. 

We’ve been told that we’re not giving farmers enough credit for what they have achieved to date. Yet we have repeatedly recognised their efforts, for example:

In the discussion document we said:

“We acknowledge that many farmers have already started addressing the degradation of New Zealand’s rivers. This good work will be built on, with a focus first on catchments where the risk of further damage is greatest.”

Damien O’Connor said:  

“all farmers in New Zealand appreciate the value of high quality water, but the growth across agriculture has simply put more pressure on the waterways across our country.”

“Farmers have done a huge amount of work to improve their practices over the last 20 years and some are leading the way in restoring our pristine waterways. But more work needs to be done. The knowledge and skills of those exemplar farmers needs to be shared with others.”

I said:

“many farmers have already taken important steps towards cleaning up our waterways through measures such as riparian planting or excluding stock from river banks. Others needed to catch up.”

“We know some farmers feel they are under pressure and we understand their concerns. That is why we included a $229 million package in the Budget to help with the transition and why we have set a target of a generation to restore our waterways,”

Damien O’Connor and I often say these things, but our critics say that we don’t.

I also want to debunk another myth of the last week – that we are seeking a return of our waterways to a “pristine” or “pure” state, in a way that it was before we had cities and farms. That is simply not true.

We do, though, want them to be swimmable and to sustain aquatic communities. Many more of our rivers were that clean just a few decades ago. It’s not an impossible task.

There have also been claims that we will force those who have recently erected substantial fences to move them immediately to, on average, 5 metres away from waterways. That’s not what we’ve said. The proposals would allow existing fences that don’t comply to stay until 2025 or 2035 depending on how close they are to waterways. In addition, landowners may seek exemptions or an extension to the timeframe.

It’s also a myth that we expect all our freshwater outcomes to be achieved in the next five years. There are steps to stop the quantity of problematic practices increasing, for example some winter grazing practices.  We promised not to allow waterways to degrade further.

However, the NPS – which is where contentious nitrate targets for water would sit – only begins to take effect from 2025. It then works prospectively over a generation. In other words, whatever bottom lines are ultimately adopted in the NPS, it will be up to councils, working with their communities, to decide the timeframes for achieving them.

I am, though, determined to stop things getting worse, and get things heading in the right direction.

We are aware that different regions are at different stages of implementation of the existing NPS requirements. Sadly the 2017 NPS won’t be in force via most plans until 2030 and even then is of prospective effect. Nevertheless, the proposals now out for consultation build on the existing framework. Councils will need to assess the changes, and upgrade their plans where necessary by 2025. A new freshwater plan making process will make it easier for them to implement and update their plans by this date, and the effort going into the likes of Plan Change 1 in the Waikato will not be wasted.

What does it mean for urban areas?

In urban areas, first and foremost, we are adopting the recommendations of the Havelock North Inquiry for safe drinking water through more protection around sources of drinking water and proper regulation of drinking water providers.

Source waters are currently regulated under the RMA and the National Environmental Standard for Sources of Human Drinking Water (Drinking Water NES), but the scope of the current regulation does not cover all activities that can pose risks of contamination. In practice, this means regional councils and territorial authorities are not consistently controlling land-use activities that adversely affect drinking water supplies.

Better management of wastewater and stormwater is also important.

Wastewater collected through piped networks and treatment plants in urban areas is treated and discharged to land or water.

Currently wastewater still overflows into local waterways and beaches in some areas. Most systems are better than yesteryear, but monitoring and reporting improvements are needed.

In terms of stormwater, historically councils have piped, filled in or reshaped many streams, and added networks of culverts and pipes to towns and cities. The quality of the water in urban waterbodies has also declined as contaminants have been washed into them.

People are disconnected from their local waterbodies. The increase in paved or impervious areas means rain is not absorbed directly into the soil, but washes into stormwater systems, carrying contaminants from road surfaces, and off roofs.

And in some cases, stormwater systems will struggle to cope with the impact of climate change, as parts of the country face more extreme rainfall and the risk of flooding is expected to increase.

We are proposing NES standards for discharges from wastewater treatment plants and requirements to meet the National Policy Statement for Freshwater over time.

Stormwater and wastewater risk management plans will help us understand and manage environmental risks.

Other proposals include better monitoring and reporting; better protection of remaining wetlands and streams from urban development. Protecting indigenous species and improving fish passage in urban streams; and reducing sediment loss from urban earthworks are also covered.

What does this mean for farmers and growers in the short term?

Environment Aotearoa 2019 says many studies at national, regional and catchment scales show that concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, fine sediment, and E. coli in rivers all increase as they pass through farmland. In general, the greater the intensity of farming, the greater the impact.

If we leave it to get worse, the clean-up costs more, takes longer and is harder to achieve.

Many farmers and growers are good stewards of the environment. They prefer farming sustainably. They understand the benefits to both their business and New Zealand’s clean green brand proposition. They are engaged with their communities and accept swimmability is a fair expectation.

But to ensure all farmers and growers contribute, there needs to be good practice standards across the board and a way of ensuring they are followed.

To quote Minister O’Connor, mostly this is about “making best practice, normal practice”.

The potential impacts of these proposals on the primary sector is something we are keenly aware of.

There are a number of proposals that apply to all farmers and growers, including over time the duty to have a farm environment plan to understand and manage environmental risks. In the meantime there are limits on further intensification of land use without a resource consent, for example, converting to dairy.

There are proposed rules around excluding cattle, deer and pigs (not sheep) from waterways more than a metre wide. Smaller waterways are proposed to be dealt with via farm environment plans.

We are also consulting on what should be the Nitrogen limit for receiving waterways.

There are also some proposals that only apply to specific locations and activities like restrictions on draining wetlands, minimum standards for winter grazing, having to get a resource consent for feedlots and reporting on large water usage using telemetry.

The NES includes a proposal to reduce what advisers believe is a patently unnecessary and excessive use of nitrogen inputs that the vast majority of farmers find unnecessary.

There are some catchments, especially in Canterbury and Southland, which over decades will have to go beyond current good practice to reduce excessive nitrogen losses. This is a prospective obligation starting in 2025 and as NZIER have said innovation will result in multiple responses. Improved practices may include new cultivars and new farm systems. There is money for this in this year’s Budget to measure those alternatives for both profit and environmental outcomes.

What does this mean over a generation?

Over a generation, we need to address issues around nutrient discharge into our waterways.

We have proposed new nitrogen limits and are keen to understand if these are right in all the catchments, or whether, for example, lowland rivers should have a different limit than higher rivers and lakes.

Regional councils will plan how to meet these, and over what time period.

In many areas, nutrient reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus is already needed over time to meet current Freshwater NPS attributes.

Reducing sediment will mean more planting on erosion prone land. Modelling indicates the sediment bottom line can normally be achieved through good practice. The existing requirement in the last government’s NPS to stop undesirable periphyton growth in stony bottomed rivers is already a legal requirement. The last government was right to include that.

Independent Advisory Panel

An Independent Advisory Panel has been appointed to provide advice to the Government on a final set of proposals for freshwater quality. Their advice will be informed by the consultation underway.

That panel is chaired by Judge David Sheppard, who chaired the board of inquiry for a Freshwater NPS in 2008 that National later spiked. That proposed NPS had controls on further intensification which would have moderated current challenges by stopping things getting worse earlier – between 2008 and 2015 cow numbers grew by about one million.

I would like to acknowledge the detailed contributions of the advisory groups that have supported the Government on its freshwater work programme: the Freshwater Leaders Group, Kāhui Wai Māori – which included members nominated by the Maori Council and FOMA, the Regional Sector Water Sub-group, and the Science and Technical Advisory Group – and before them close to a decade of work by the Land and Water Forum.

I would note the Fresh Water Leaders Group is chaired by John Penno, the former CEO of Canterbury dairy company Synlait, and that Kāhui Wai Māori is chaired by Kingi Smiler, the current chair of Miraka, a Waikato-based dairy land owner and processor.

What we have done to date - consultation

We of course got the message that farmers are concerned about the impact on them. I again acknowledge the great work that many farmers are doing. I’ve seen it myself on visits to farms in Kaipara, Bay of Plenty, Southland and Waikato. I am confident if others move to best practice we will meet this challenge.

The NES costs are already well developed. There are some 20 pages on this in the discussion document. Care should be taken not to double count. Fencing can meet both e.coli and sediment objectives.

My officials will be doing more analysis of the impacts and costs, especially around the proposed nitrogen attribute in the NPS, although I again emphasise that we should be focusing on only those costs imposed that are above and beyond what the existing periphyton attribute requires.

The six-week consultation period is similar to the consultation period that we use for submissions to select committees. However, we have responded to requests for more time and have said we will receive submissions up to 31 October.

Sitting on our hands, while our water quality continues to decline in many rivers, is not an option.

We need to start now. The longer we wait, the higher the cost of fixing it will be. This is a point emphasised by the advisory groups.


I want to quickly touch on the question of nutrient allocation and the issues raised by the Waitangi Tribunal in its Wai 2358 report.

Cabinet has recognised that allocation issues need to be addressed and had always intended that be done in a phased way after we addressed issues of water quality.

Indeed one of the complaints of sheep and beef farmers about the interim controls on intensification is that they see it as grandparenting existing high emitters to their detriment. We agree with that concern, which means allocation issues need to be addressed.

In resolving these issues we need to get the balance right between providing water and discharge rights for developed land and the under developed land, which is disproportionately held by Maori.


This Essential Freshwater package is grounded in the belief that if, with all our advantages, New Zealand can’t overcome its environmental problems, then the world won’t. Acting now will ensure our environment can continue to sustain our economy.

To quote the Governor General, Dame Patsy Reddy:

“The environment is a taonga for all of us, but caring about the environment and caring for the environment are two different things – sentiment must be accompanied by action.”

All New Zealanders have to take action and I encourage you to have your say on these important issues.