Govt's $700 million waterway reform brings mixed reviews

On Thursday the Government announced a $700 million reform to make swimming holes and rivers safe to jump into without getting sick.

The major plan to clean them up includes setting higher health standards at swimming spots, requiring urban waterways to be cleaned up, strict controls on higher-risk farm practices and nitrogen pollution and mandatory farm environment plans.

Environment Minister David Parker says he is excited to clean up fresh waterways.

"I love rivers, I love wetlands… I'm determined that we turn this around," he says.

"We've got to turn this around and we are going to."

But there are concerns about the reform as some of the rules are softer than the Government's original proposed changes.

Now farmers will have more time to comply, and a national bottom-line limit on nitrogen and phosphorus has been parked for now.

Farmer Karl Dean says the changes make it "more practical and achievable".

"Farmers have pretty good waterways already. It's about getting rid of those bottom dwellers really that are dragging the industry down."

But freshwater scientist Mike Joy says the reform isn't good enough.

"Water will continue to get worse in New Zealand," he says. "It was a whole wasted process."

While Parker said on Thursday the scientific advisory group couldn't agree on a position on the farming lobby, Joy says "the majority of scientists could".

But it's not just Joy who wants stronger limits, Environmental NGOs including Fish and Game want them too.

"There needed to be a nitrate limit and it needed to be set by the science. The good news is it hasn't been stopped, it's been postponed," says Fish and Game CEO Martin Taylor. 

It has been postponed until after the election but the Government is setting a limit on synthetic fertiliser use instead and more farmers will have to fence their waterways.

Only 20 percent of farmers will have to reduce fertiliser use to comply but Joy is concerned the limit is still far too high.

"It's like telling someone - a smoker who is on three packs of cigarettes - that you're going to have to cut down to two and a half cigarettes."

The changes have brought mixed reviews but some practical changes in one of the more politically challenging portfolios.