Fertiliser cuts, irrigation limits and discharge watching part of Government's freshwater plan

Farmers and councils will be held responsible for freshwater quality in the Government's new proposed standards to protect waterways "under serious threat".

The proposals were outlined in a draft National Policy Statement and National Environment Standards: Freshwater paper released on Thursday.

The Government wants to cut fertiliser use and pollution going into waterways, protect urban streams, and improve protection for wetlands on both public and private land.

"If we don't fix things now they only get worse and will be more expensive to fix," Environment Minister David Parker said at the announcement.

"Cleaning up polluted waterways is a long-term challenge that will take a generation to fix, but the steps in this plan will make a real difference and get things heading in the right direction."

It follows the Government recently announcing plans to amend the Resource Management Act (RMA).

The Government set aside almost $300 million in the Budget to help farmers transition to environmentally-friendly practices.

What are the big proposals?

Draining of wetlands will be tightly restricted under the proposal, and use of fertiliser will be reduced.

Remaining streams in urban areas will not be piped or filled in unless there is no other option, for example to provide a crossing.

There will be improvements to setting minimum water flows and reporting on water use, as well as tighter management of land use in areas that are sources of drinking water so supply isn't contaminated.

Minimum standards for wastewater discharges and overflows would be set and all operators would be required to follow good practice and management.

Farmers would have to have a plan to manage the risks posed to freshwater in their area.

From June 2020, new irrigation or conversion to dairying would only be allowed where there is clear evidence it will not increase pollution.

Farmers would also have to make efforts to exclude stock from waterways through more fencing to keep them out of waterways and reduce erosion, and capture contaminants before they reach freshwater.

Councils held to account

Councils will be held to account for freshwater quality in being required to report against five components of the ecosystem: aquatic life, habitat, water quality, water quantity, and ecological process.

"We are working on a template for a standard summary 'report card' that regional councils will be able to use," the report says.

"We are proposing that councils are required to measure and manage a broader range of ecosystem health attributes."

They will be required to set a target that will ensure water quality is maintained or improved, and proactively manage land and water use towards that target

In the event that an area being watched declines, or is below a national bottom line, councils would have to implement an action plan to improve.