Clean water for people, and for the environment
The Government has released its Freshwater discussion document for public consultation. The document is, at least in part, based on the recommendations of the Land and Water forum, comprised of 70 stakeholders including Forest & Bird. Over the last 7 years, the Land and Water Forum has done something remarkable. They agreed on an integrated policy in which fresh water ecological health must be managed by putting real, meaningful limits on water management.
So, what does Forest & Bird make of the Government’s Freshwater discussion document?
Each catchment’s quality must be ‘maintained or improved’
A significant win for the environment is the proposal that water quality be measured relative to each individual catchment, rather than each region, as has been the previous interperatation. This means that catchments won’t be sacrificed in a game of region wide horse-trading. Instead, each catchment will need to meet the National Policy Statement requirement for water quality to be ‘maintained or improved’ on its own merits.
But will you be able to swim in it?
The Government has not changed its position that bottom-line water only needs to be safe for wading.
Water which is safe for humans to play in and to gather food in is also good for ecological heath – Forest & Bird don’t support the wade-able standard being the water quality bottom-line.
A mandatory water quality measure
The discussion document proposes that the ‘Macro-invertebrate Community Index’ (ie – a scientific count of the numbers and types of invertebrates in the water) be used direct measure of freshwater ecological health and Forest & Bird agrees that it should be adopted as a mandatory water quality standard. The same should be the case for dissolved inorganic nitrogen which is a very important contaminant nutrient.
Water Conservation Orders (WCOs)
WCOs are often portrayed as ‘locking up’ rivers and making commercial and productive uses impossible, but this is not the case. It is hard to think of any river with a WCO where there are not also normal commercial land-based productive activities. All WCOs do is set clear limits that protect the outstanding values. So what do Forest and Bird make of the Government’s proposals?
WCOs – the good bits
F&B supports four out of the five proposals to do with WCOs. We are pleased to see iwi participation in the WCO processes clarified. We also support the proposal to empower Regional Councils to identify outstanding water bodies through their planning processes and recommend Water Conservation Orders to the Minister. This is something we, and other eNGOs, have been calling for, for a long time.
The National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management requires councils to protect the outstanding values of freshwater bodies, and WCOs are the obvious tool for councils to use to achieve this protection. They should be doing this already, and the Government’s proposal provides extra impetus for this to happen.
WCOs – the bad bit
But one proposal, which Forest & Bird is strongly opposed to, allows the Minister for the Environment to delay an application for a WCO if there will be a conflict with a regional planning process.
WCOs are about protecting outstanding features of water bodies. If those outstanding features exist then clearly they shouldn’t be undermined by a planning process which is required to protect them anyway.
Furthermore, why should a proposal to protect the outstanding values of a water body be subject to a delay if there might be a conflict, when the converse is not the case?
If a developer comes up with a proposal that may ‘conflict’ with a regional planning process there is no equivalent proposal that the Minister could delay that application. A development can proceed while planning is happening and therefore may compromise the water body’s outstanding values.
This is a simple issue of fairness when it comes to treating proposals to protect the outstanding values of water bodies when compared to proposals to exploit and undermine the values of water bodies.
What can you do?
More on Fresh Water in the RMA
Apart from the MfE’s discussion document, the other key instrument being used to implement the Land & Water Forum’s recommendations is the RMA Amendment Bill that was introduced to Parliament in December. Forest & Bird is encouraging public submissions on the RMA draft bill, which you can read more about here. (link to RMA pages on our site. )
Click here to make a submission on MfE’s Freshwater discussion document.
The RMA and water quality
Apart from this new discussion document the other key instrument being used to implement the Land & Water Forum’s recommendations is the RMA Amendment Bill that was introduced to Parliament in December.
There are two water reform implementation issues that relate to the RMA Amendment Bill.
- The first is the Bill’s treatment of collaborative processes.
Collaborative processes are a way of dealing with problems where there are high levels of competition from a range of stakeholders for a limited resource where constraints are already impacting on all parties and everyone is suffering – or is likely to suffer.
Freshwater management is such a problem – which is why collaborative processes have worked at the national policy level with the Land & water Forum – and which is why they have been recommended for dealing with that policy implementation at the regional level.
However, the Amendment Bill proposes to go far wider and open collaborative processes to planning on a wide range of issues. If this happens, the membership and focus of the group will become very diffuse and its ability to resolve key issues will be severely compromised.
This could seriously undermine the potential that well managed collaborative processes have to resolve key land and water management issues.
- Secondly, there is the core issue of setting hard limits and managing to them.
Section 104 of the RMA deals with resource consent decisions.
Rather than requiring that consented activities must ‘give effect” to water quality and water take limits – s.104 only requires that decision makers “have regard to” those limits.
As a result, we are seeing authorities approving consent after consent that individually and in combination exceed the limits.
This is a major but easily fixed anomaly.
- Thirdly, the Bill also proposes to allow activities that breach a Plan rule in a “marginal or temporary” way to be treated as a permitted activity – this will render such rules pointless and will obviously undermine the enforcement of water limits.
It is really important that these issues are resolved