Rural sector reacts to new Government freshwater regulations

The Government has earmarked $700 million to implement the new regulations.
The Government has earmarked $700 million to implement the new regulations. Photo credit: Getty

The reaction to the Government's new freshwater plan by those in the rural sector has been mostly positive, though some say there is still a "sting in the tail".

The plan to protect the country's rivers and lakes was announced earlier on Thursday and came after a consultation period last year that received more than 17,500 submissions.

One of those who gave feedback on the draft plan was south Hamilton dairy farmer George Moss.

He told Newshub despite there being some room for improvement,  it appears the Government had listened to what farmers had to say.

"If I was to score it out of 10, I'd probably give it an eight out of 10," Moss said. "It will take everything in the right direction."

The new regulations - many of which come into effect in 2023 - will prohibit stock from entering rivers or streams more than a metre wide and require fences on farms to be a minimum of 3 metres from a waterway. Stock must also be restricted from grazing within 3m from the banks of waterways. 

The plan also places a cap on how much synthetic fertiliser can be used on farms, setting an initial limit of 190kgs/hectare/year set, with a review by 2023. It will not apply to vegetable growers.

DairyNZ's chief executive Dr Tim Mackle said his organisation was pleased the Government had made significant changes to some of the more controversial elements of the original proposal.

"Looking at where the policy has landed, it appears that the Government has taken a better approach in terms of scientific rigour and practicality for farmers on the ground," Dr Mackle said.

Federated Farmers echoed that opinion, saying it appeared the Government "had heeded some of the rural sector concerns".

However, Chris Alllen, Federated Farmers environment spokesperson, noted there were still "some sharp edges that will bite our farmers".

"What farmer groups seek now is the opportunity for input to ensure the final regulations and National Policy Statement (NPS) matches the intent of the policies. And if the regulations are shown to be flawed or impractical, the Government needs to be open to changing them."

Allen said the group was now focused on ensuring there were no more amendments to the plan's objectives, "so farmers know what they're working towards".

The plan was welcomed by Horticulture New Zealand, which said it was happy to see proposed restrictions on the horticulture intensification removed.

Irrigation NZ said it was pleased the Government had responded to some of the issues it had raised but noted "there is a lot of complexity in this large-scale reform, and it will have cost and operational impacts on irrigators".

One of the more controversial parts of the plan was the move to delay a decision on implementing a national bottom line for dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN).

According to Marnie Prickett, spokesperson for Choose Clean Water, implementing such a bottom line was crucial for protecting the health of the ecosystem.

"It was also recommended by the Government’s own Science and Technical Advisory group that produced hundreds of pages of reports saying that to protect the health of rivers the bottom line should be 1mg/L for dissolved inorganic nitrogen," Prickett said.

But Dr Mackle said implementing such a measure would be "impractical and expensive" for farmers.

"While we agree that nitrate toxicity is the right measure, we disagree with the standard which has been set. DairyNZ advocated for 3.8 as a significant progression on the old NPS and double the existing standard."

He said the proposed 95 percent protection standard will severely affect farmers in catchment areas who are already taking significant action towards reducing their footprint in line with regional council policy plans.

Moss, the dairy farmer, said while he didn't have a problem with setting a lower target he did have concerns over how practical it was to achieve that.

"The target's good, what they're trying to achieve is good - the mechanics of it and understanding all the moving parts that need to be managed, if they're manageable, is probably a little more problematic."

He said there was a "whole discussion" about what exactly drives nitrate levels, meaning the meeting lower targets could be difficult in practice.

The Government has earmarked $700 million to help the primary sector and other groups implement the new regulations.