The Govt’s freshwater agenda – media centre gathers expert reaction

The Science Media Centre quickly gathered expert comment on the policy document Essential Freshwater: Healthy Water, Fairly Allocated.

The document accompanied the blueprint for the Government’s freshwater agenda, which sets out key objectives for improving water quality over the next two years.

The policy objectives are:
– to stop further degradation and loss
– to reverse past damage
– to address water allocation issues.

These comments have been posted on the SCM website:

Professor Troy Baisden, Professor in Lake and Freshwater Science, University of Waikato:  

“Today, the Government has set out its Essential Freshwater programme, including the establishment of a cross government Task Force. Key steps on the agenda include an ambitious timeline for reform of key legislation, the Resource Management Act (RMA), and the National Policy Statement that gives it effect nationally.

“The 24-page document gives enough detail to spell out the complexity of managing water. Here, complexity makes it frustrating to ask these simple questions: what’s most important and how do we fix it? Unfortunately, unlike greenhouse gases which cause climate change after mixing into the global atmosphere, threats to freshwater vary widely from catchments to catchment.

“It’s fair to say that controlling nitrate matters most in many places, but that pathogens, sediment and phosphorous are more critical in other places. Newer threats, such as microplastics and endocrine disrupters may also deserve serious attention. Last week’s release from LAWA showed us that we have improving data nationally, but that most New Zealanders will still struggle to understand what to fix where.

“It appears to me the success of the Task Force will depend on three interrelated expert groups to sort through the complexity. The biggest single question I have is, how will the Task Force do better than the Land and Water Forum? As the MfE document states (p. 14), the Land and Water Forum “could not resolve the tension between existing users and owners of underdeveloped land, including Maori.“

A March 2016 analysis of the Land and Water Forum’s implementation of recommendations shows the scope of the challenge the Task Force’s experts will face. There were 218 recommendations across 4 Land and Water Forum reports, yet only 21 were fully implemented – less than 10%. Worse, over 50% of recommendations were not implemented at all.

“So what will be done differently? Perhaps the best hint is given in the press release, putting NGOs and Māori ahead of other stakeholders in the process, including industry and regional councils. A big challenge will be ensuring NGOs and Māori have access to the same quality of information and analysis as better resourced representatives from industry, councils and central government. If this is successful, and the information is transparently available to the public, that will be progress.

“Cost will limit action for farmers, but also councils. This leads to a question of whether legislative reform can enable better alignment of flood protection schemes, water quality and management of climate change risks.

“Farmers in many areas are keen to innovate and try new solutions, but can we get systems in place to prioritise the prospects in each area? And can improved monitoring quickly show if they work? Given the timeframe, success will require innovation more than new science.

“It will help greatly if this process takes a hierarchical approach. Local steps that seem small may add up to a lot if there are many. I’m hopeful the Task Force can succeed where the LAWF didn’t, if it can encourage innovation by helping people visualise a process they can understand and trust at a range of scales.”

Conflict of interest statement: Funded as the Bay of Plenty Regional Council Chair in Lake and Freshwater Science.

Dr Scott Larned, NIWA Manager, Freshwater Research:

Note: This comment is limited to the new work streams in the Essential Freshwater programme, and does not address other government programmes that are listed under ‘Related work’.

“In my view, the most newsworthy aspects of the Essential Freshwater programme are:

1. Addressing Maori rights and interests
2. The immediate focus on stopping degradation in at-risk catchments
3. Initiating work on contaminant-discharge allocation systems
4. Greater regulatory control of land-use practices that are likely to affect water quality (e.g., winter grazing)
5. The commitment to a ‘noticeable improvement in freshwater quality’ in five years.

“Success in each of these areas will take a lot of collaboration with communities, councils and the primary sector, research to underpin the policies, and relationship building with iwi.

“The first work stream focuses on at-risk catchments. I understand that a project within this work stream is underway at MfE, with input from regional councils. The Essential Freshwater document does not provide a specific definition for at-risk catchments, and there is insufficient detail for commenting. The last Land and Water Forum report noted that inconsistent criteria are being used to identify and manage at-risk catchments and that developing consistent criteria is a priority.

“The second work stream is a new (or amended) NPS-FM [National Policy Statement – Freshwater Management]. Most of the components of this work-stream align with recommendations in the last Land and Water Forum report (e.g., requirements for good management practices, resolving exceptions to national bottom lines). Those components are sensible and should help with NPS-FM implementation. There are also several references to the “Sheppard principles” set out by the 2008 Board of Inquiry. However, there is no indication of which Sheppard principles are now under consideration, or how they will be incorporated in the amended NPS-FM.

“The third work stream is a NES for Freshwater Management. As with the amended NPS-FM, most of the components of this work stream align with recommendations in the last Land and Water Forum report (e.g., mechanisms for managing intensification, including consent reviews). Those components are also sensible. In addition, the proposed NES includes a provision for default ecological flows and levels. Those defaults were an important component of the draft NES on Ecological Flows and Water Levels (2008), which has been in abeyance for several years. It is good to see that work resurrected.

“The fourth work stream is on RMA amendments. There is insufficient detail in the Essential Freshwater work programme for detailed comments, although ‘reduced complexity, improved certainty and improved public participation’ are hard to argue against. More detail about the elements of this work stream are needed.

“The fifth work stream is on the development of an equitable and efficient contaminant discharge allocation system. Developing such a system is predicated on knowledge of four different processes: contaminant losses from land, surface and subsurface transport of contaminants from source areas to water bodies, contaminant loading and mixing in those water bodies, and environmental effects of the contaminants on freshwater values. A substantial amount of research and modelling work is required to ensure that a contaminant allocation system will have predictable, beneficial outcomes. This work should be included in the “Investment in Solutions” element of the “Freshwater Policy Future Framework” on page 23.”

Conflict of interest statement: I participated in the Land and Water Forum Small Group that prepared the report to the Minister referred to in the Essential Freshwater document.

Source: Science Media Centre

Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog

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