NB: Notes for Speech to National Freshwater conference February 17 2022 – check against delivery
Thank you for inviting me to give the closing speech for this year’s National Freshwater conference.
In wrapping up today, I am bookending the opening address from Judge Laurie Newhook, who analysed for you the suite of regulatory measures for freshwater quality introduced in 2020, and outlined his role as Chief Freshwater Commissioner. As the former Chief Environment Judge, Judge Newhook brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the role, in which he succeeded Professor Peter Skelton CNZM last month.
Professor Skelton, a retired Environment Judge, served as Chief Freshwater Commissioner for the first 18 months of the office’s existence, and got the new freshwater planning process up and running. We are fortunate to have benefitted from his wisdom and extensive expertise, before he finally retired earlier this year – in his 80s – from a lifetime of service to environmental law and the public.
More on the freshwater planning process later.
The measures Judge Newhook analysed were the core of the Government’s Essential Freshwater reform package introduced in 2020. I want to take stock today of what has been achieved so far and to look at where we need to focus our efforts from now on.
The Government’s key objectives for freshwater quality are stopping further degradation, making material improvements within five years, and restoring waterways to a healthy state within a generation.
The state of our lakes, rivers, wetlands and estuaries is fundamentally important to New Zealanders. We know too many streams and wetlands have been lost or continue to degrade. And too many native species and fisheries are under threat.
It is shocking that the majority of monitored swimming places no longer meet World Health Organisation safe swimming guidelines. You should be able to pop down to your local river in summer and put your head under without the risk of getting crook.
At the EDS conference last year, we saw appalling examples of activities causing excessive sedimentation in both urban and rural areas and the effects that was having. It caused me to ask councils to please explain, and to task the EPA to look into the examples further.
The Essential Freshwater reform package is designed to turn around these deeply troubling trends.
This package is tackling water quality issues comprehensively, in urban and rural settings.
It comprises the most significant change to the management of freshwater since the Resource Management Act (RMA) was introduced three decades ago, and it will take concerted effort to implement well. Many in the room will be influential in that effort.
Essential Freshwater has five inter-related parts.
First, we legislated a new plan-making process under the RMA.
This will make regional freshwater plans more consistent and effective, and speed up the process of creating them.
Second, we made a new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020 (NPS-FM). As Judge Newhook outlined, this requires councils to give effect to Te Mana o te Wai. The first priority in Te Mana o te Wai’s hierarchy of obligations is to protect the health of water bodies and freshwater ecosystems. The second priority is the needs of people, such as drinking water. The third priority is commercial uses.
The NPS-FM sets minimum national bottom lines across key measures of freshwater health. It lays out the pathway to restore our waterways in both urban and rural areas.
Third, we made new National Environmental Standards for Freshwater, and new stock exclusion regulations.
These measures protect wetlands and control high-risk practices like intensive winter grazing and high levels of synthetic fertilizer use. They also put temporary controls on some forms of land use intensification.
Fourth, we legislated for a freshwater farm plan system under the RMA. All farms above a certain size will eventually need a certified freshwater farm plan.
Finally, we established the Jobs for Nature fund. The fund provided $1.25 billion for a programme of environmental work as part of the COVID-19 recovery package. Around $700 million of the fund is targeted at improving the health of waterways.
We want to ensure that we have the settings right.
After we introduced the Essential Freshwater package in 2020 we heard concerns about aspects of the regulations for intensive winter grazing, stock exclusion, and wetlands. The statutory process to change instruments is time consuming. We have consulted publicly on proposals to address the concerns.
Having analysed feedback, officials are giving me advice, and we expect to make changes by mid-year.
Regional councils have the statutory powers and responsibility to protect and restore waterways.
Regional councils are taking tangible steps to implement the Essential Freshwater reforms.
They are increasingly working together to share resources and experience.
Councils have already started the process of engaging tāngata whenua and other communities about the outcomes they want for their rivers and lakes and how to give effect to Te Mana o Te Wai.
Many councils are conducting new research, modelling and mapping, as well as increasing their levels of monitoring to understand what is driving degraded water quality. This knowledge will help decision-making.
The Ministry for the Environment is supporting this work by providing interpretation guidance and practical support to help councils and others deliver on the policy intent of the Essential Freshwater package.
Councils have until 31 December 2024 to notify new regional plans that implement the NPS-FM. Officials will track progress toward this deadline.
We have also appointed more than 20 freshwater commissioners, led by Judge Newhook, who are ready to process plans.
Panels have been appointed for hearings on the Otago Regional Council regional policy statement, and the Bay of Plenty Plan Change 5.
In Otago, the High Court is currently considering whether the integrated Otago Regional Council policy statement is or isn’t a freshwater planning instrument. I am interested to hear the Court’s view on the integrated approach the ORC has taken to the freshwater planning process.
The Essential Freshwater work will be transitioned into the new RM system.
The NPS-FM, with its bottom lines and outcomes , will be transitioned into the new resource management system that will replace the RMA. The underlying policy settings that so many people have put so much effort into developing, and that New Zealanders overwhelmingly support, will be retained.
Mandatory freshwater farm plans will also carry forward to the new system.
Freshwater farm plans are core to Essential Freshwater.
Freshwater farm plans are a new tool in the resource management system, and will make a big contribution to protecting and restoring waterways.
Over time we expect councils to increasingly look to freshwater farm plans to provide effective, tailored ways to improve rural waterways.
Resource consents, rules and national regulation will remain part of the system.
Freshwater farm plans will complement these existing tools, to address situations where hard-and-fast rules or individual resource consents are not the best approach.
I want to be clear that freshwater farm plans are more than ‘good management practice’. GMP is not an environmental outcome.
Rather, freshwater farm plans need to start with what is needed for the catchment in which each farm sits.
We want to build on the many forms of farm planning already in place.
We expect the new regulations to be in place from the middle of the year, with phased rollout of the new system from then.
As I said, The Government is investing to protect and improve freshwater and ecosystems.
This includes supporting numerous restoration projects via the Jobs for Nature programme or the Nature Heritage Fund, in collaboration with regional councils, iwi and hapū, other communities and landowners.
Projects include the $12.5 million Lake Horowhenua Water Quality Interventions Project. This has enabled the purchase of a 142-hectare dairy farm which will be converted into a nationally significant wetland. The project will improve water quality in Lake Horowhenua and the habitat for native fish, birds and plant species, while also providing jobs for the community. It is expected to create up to 45 full time equivalent jobs over four years.
We all have obligations to protect freshwater. The Essential Freshwater package applies to urban as well as rural waterways. Urban waterways make up only about one percent of New Zealand’s rivers and streams. But they are generally in the poorest health.
Urban development must be done responsibly with better control of sediment. There is too much poor practice currently.
Many urban streams will need to be restored to a more natural state if the bottom lines in the NPS-FM are to be achieved.
There is still much work to do, but I feel confident that by continuing to work together we can achieve the outcomes we have set ourselves.
New Zealanders deserve and expect no less of us.