Why cleaning up water will be hard
By Richard Harman (author)
The Government packed out Parliament’s Banquet Hall yesterday to launch its long-awaited freshwater policy.
The only problem was that the key parts of the policy are still to be developed.
So instead of detail, the local government, iwi, farming and environmental groups who attended the launch simply heard that the next step is the creation of three advisory bodies.
These bodies will have to advise on the big intractable issues particularly how to allocate nitrate discharge permits to Maori.
Environment Minister David Parker is promising that the big issues will be resolved in 2020 with a new National Policy Standard and a National Environmental Standard on Freshwater and, he said, “noticeable and measurable” changes in the quality of waterways should be evident by 2023.
The promise to make all rivers swimmable within in a generation still there but yesterday it seemed a long way off.
This was not enough for Greenpeace’s freshwater campaigner, Gen Toop, who said Parker’s plan was good news for rivers in the long-term but “it is completely missing interim measures to stop further pollution."
The plan itself provides for the three advisory committees and the two national standards but also calls for changes to the Resource Management Act and Parker talked about some targeted actions and investment in at-risk catchments “from now.”
But the big issue is the allocation of nitrate discharge permits to Maori.
It is obviously so politically sensitive that members of Kahui Wai-Maori – the Maori Freshwater Forum --- are required to obtain the “prior consent of the Crown and other KWM members before making any public statements related to the substance of KWM issues” according to a Cabinet paper released by Parker yesterday.
The Government has laid down some bottom lines for the future development of the Maori policy.
The Cabinet paper says: “no one owns freshwater – it belongs to everyone.”
And springing from that the Cabinet has not agreed to a proposal for a royalty charge on freshwater.
However, the paper notes, “although a charging mechanism may eventually be useful to drive efficient use of freshwater resources, Ministers have not considered it further because of the coalition agreement.”
The approach with the Maori issue is cautious; the first focus will be on water quality and then will come allocation.
Kahui Wai Maori is to be chaired by Wairarapa accountant and agri-business person, King Smiler, who currently chairs the Federation of Maori Authorities and is well known within the dairy industry, particularly for his work in helping establish Miraka, the Maori dairy company based in Taupo.
The appointments bring a wealth of experience and include Maori scientists, environmentalists and lawyers and also the former Labour MP, Dover Samuels who has long been on the right of the party.
Maori- Crown relations Minister, Kelvin Davis, will be the Government's point-man dealing with Kahui Wai Maori.
And he says the question of Maori owned under-developed land which would not be eligible for any “grandfathered” water allocation or discharge permits is at the heart of the issue.
“There is a lot of land that historically had water allocation when Maori weren't able to develop their land; they've been left out, and now we have got to look at ways for that undeveloped land to become developed,” he told POLITIK.
"But we've got to work with Maori to do it, and that's one of the purposes of Kahui Wai Maori.”
The other question is where the rights for Maori will come from; would existing rights holders have to give some up?
"That is going to be one of the difficult issues we have to work on around this whole thing.
"How that is going to be managed is one of the tough questions, but we are not shying away from these difficult decisions that have to be made around water.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Dairy NZ Chair, Jim Van Der Poel is optimistic that a solution can be reached.
“I think the first thing we have got to do is make sure that everyone is implementing best practice,” he said.
"With the technology that we have, we will reduce the loading (of nitrates) everywhere.
“There are a lot of good farmers doing good work already, putting good practices in place, and being very careful with their nutrient allocation.
“There is a tail that we still have to try and tidy up.
“As we tidy those up we will find that the loading will come off to some degree anyway.
“In a lot of catchments that should create some headroom for that undeveloped land.”
Federated Farmers water and environment spokesperson, Chris Allen, said nothing in the moring’s presentation surprised him.
"All we ask is that the government uses an even hand," he said.
“For example, the commitment to getting tougher on nutrient discharges to waterways needs to be applied fairly to both councils, corporates and farmers.”
In fact, the morning was noticeably lighter on anti-farmer rhetoric than some might have expected, particularly from Parker.
He said it was not just dairy cows which were responsible for waterway pollution.
“Sometimes it’s intensive beef production; sometimes it’s deer farming; occasionally it’s market gardening or new subdivisions,” he said.
However, he said some winter grazing practices were clearly unsustainable. This will be an issue, particularly in Southland, where intensive winter grazing is a widespread practice and where some farmers fear any restriction could impact land values because it would lower stock carrying capacities.
Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said New Zealand wanted and needed economic growth but within environmental limits.
“I believe that we need farm plans that protect the environment and the farmer’s right to carry on operating.”
He said the social licence to operate in farming had been under question.
And he said the current review of the Dairy Industry Restructuring Act (which governs Fonterra) could address environmental issues.
“Some say the current legislation prevented Fonterra from imposing stricter environmental controls on some farmers.
“We are looking at that.”
The other big question was the pace at which change could take place.
Parker is obviously impatient.
"As a nation, we have been kicking the can down the road on this problem for too many years,” he said.
“The timeline shows how delays since 2004 have made the problem worse making the cleanup harder.
"At the last election, 13 years after Morgan Williams produced his pivotal report as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, all the political parties agreed during a televised debate that we have passed the nutrient and livestock limit for pollution in some intensively farmed catchments.
“I was so pleased that water stayed a topline issue throughout the campaign.
“And the new government was elected with a clear mandate to turn things around.”
Environmental defence Society CEO, Gary Taylor, who has played a vital role in the water pollution debate, was pleased that the Government had decided to set up three groups of experts. (he is a member of one of the groups.)
“I don’t think we could have left this to government agencies on their own,” he said.
“It is wickedly complex.”
But the land Water Forum comprised a large number of experts drawn from the same areas Parker’s three groups; Maori, local government, NGO's and scientists. However, Parker wound it up because he argued it had ducked the big question of nitrate discharge permit allocation with its associated issue of Maori allocation.
But Taylor believes the Forum did a good job. He said we had got to where we were today which was a long way ahead of where we were in 2008 when the Forum was set up.
“The limits to the measurement of its success is the way in which the government hasn’t picked up on its recommendations,” he said.
“The National Government let a lot of its recommendations wither on the vine, and that is responsible for the incomplete nature of the regulatory settings that we have got today.”
Taylor is optimistic that the current government will move.
“Freshwater was the biggest environmental issue in any election since the mid-70s when we had the big battles over saving native forests.
"So the settings are there for us to improve but one of the tricks will be not getting ahead of ourselves and trying to do too much too quickly and harming the productive sector in an unfair kind of way.
“So I think this is why the wisdom of a group that has a very wide range of interests sitting alongside the Ministers and government officials is a good sounding board to have.”
The Government promised a lot with its election campaign freshwater policy; most notably that all rivers will be swimmable within a generation.
It must now do the hard political yards to make that happen. It will be no easy task.