First stage of fresh water policy finalised

July 10, 2013

In a speech launching the first stage of a national fresh water policy, environment Minister Amy Adams says:

. . . Already, more than $450 million has been committed to cleaning up some of our most iconic rivers, lakes and wetlands.

It would be much better, though, if we prevented pollution of our waterways in the first place, rather than leaving our children and grandchildren to face a legacy of poor water quality and ever-increasing clean-up costs.

We all want an end to the conflict – the costs and the delays that many of us face when planning for activities that use or affect our fresh water.

It seems that too often water disputes are determined by who has the best lawyers, the biggest chequebook, and in the long term, the health of our waterways has not necessarily been well-served by that approach.

It is time to stop focussing on the issues that divide us, rather than the values around water that we all share.

As our population grows and our land use intensifies, the time is overdue to reassess our approach to managing water.

There is too much at stake if we don’t take action.

New Zealand’s economy depends on the productive sector, which, of course, depends on water.

We produce fruit and vegetables worth more than $5 billion-a-year.

Dairying earns $13 billion-plus-a-year in exports, and tourism earns $10 billion-a-year

Think, too, of the contributions from pastoral farming and forestry.

But, this is not just about the dollars. Horticulture employs 50,000 people and the dairy industry employs another 45,000.

That is around 95,000 people – and their families – that rely on just two of the many industries that rely on access to fresh water.

Paradoxically water is both a renewable and a limited resource. We need better tools to manage it, and we need to consider whether decisions around water management are being made at the right level and with the right community inputs.

To deal with these challenges, we are facing difficult decisions. We have to consider and make trade-offs between the many and often conflicting values we hold around water. It is after all, a shared resource.

There is also the difficulty that when we talk about balance in the context of resource management, there is a perception that we have to pit the environment against the economy.

This is not an either/or question – we want to be able to apply the broad judgement that was originally intended under the Resource Management Act.

Our economy depends on the environment. Equally, a strong economy gives us the ability to address environmental concerns. This is about the economy and the environment.

But, we are now facing increasing risks to both.

In addition, we all have responsibility to ensure we are using our natural resources in a way that is fair to the generations that are still to be born. . .

Part of the problem isn’t what people are doing now, it’s what happened in the past.

Pollution resulting from poor management or poor decisions in the past can take decades to show up in our waterways, so it is quite likely that things will get worse before they get better.

Water is a key ingredient of economic growth, but the value we get from it is not just about the economy; it is also about water’s value in sustaining life and for recreation, and its role in our national identity.

It is clear we need to make changes if we are to continue to enjoy and benefit from it.

The Government has been working on a package of cohesive reform that will lead to more productive and sustainable use of our freshwater resource within a generation. . .

Work on this began four years ago when the Land and Water Forum was tasked with agreeing on the problems, and some possible ways of tackling them.

This was the genesis of the Fresh Start for Freshwater reforms.

In 2011, we progressed the Forum’s recommendations by introducing the first of three major initiatives.

We introduced a limits-based regime for freshwater management through the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.  A key requirement of the NPS is that overall water quality in all regions must be maintained or improved.

Our second initiative was to put $15 million over two years into a special fund devoted to partnership arrangements with councils and communities to clean up six lakes, rivers and wetlands.

And thirdly, we set up the Irrigation Acceleration Fund. In this year’s Budget, the Government has committed $80 million to invest in regional irrigation schemes as the first stage of its commitment to invest up to $400 million. 

Building on the recommendations in the three reports of the Land and Water Forum, and on on-going advice from Iwi Leaders, the Government released a discussion document on a comprehensive and integrated package of proposals for freshwater reform in March this year.

More than 2000 people attended 50 meetings and hui around the country in March and April to give their views.

I am happy to report that there was broad support for the overall direction of the water reform proposals.

Today, I am pleased to announce that the Government intends to introduce amendments to the Resource Management Act in a Bill to be introduced to the House this year to begin to deal with these issues.

First and foremost, we accept the Land and Water Forum’s recommendation to include a collaborative option for freshwater planning.

Currently, council staff draft a plan then consult on it – often described as a decide, announce defend approach – which is then followed, potentially, by years of litigation.

Instead, we will provide an option where people and organisations drawn from the community can work together, reflecting their diverse values in setting objectives and limits for their local freshwater resources.

Councils and communities that invest time and energy in the early stages of the planning process are more likely to produce better and more durable decisions because of their involvement.

Getting agreement upfront in the planning process will mean less litigation further down the track, which will increase certainty for everyone, and ultimately, save time and money.

We will not be compelling councils to choose a collaborative approach. Regions will still be able to use the existing Schedule 1 planning process if they choose, however, feedback on our proposals for freshwater reform showed there is significant support for collaboration.

Collaboration depends on the incentives being right for all those engaged, at all steps, to work together towards the best outcomes, and getting those incentives properly calibrated has been a critical part of the exercise.

Limiting appeals is one of the key tools for fostering consensus and incentivising upfront engagement, as are ensuring residual appeal rights are appropriately tethered to deviation from the collaboratively-reached decisions.

An important feature of this planning option is the flexibility in how collaboration can operate region-by-region. It is critical that the Government provides guidance and support, as councils and communities adopt to this new way of working to ensure success.

Additionally, we are also clarifying and enhancing provisions for iwi/Māori views to be explicitly considered before planning decisions on fresh water are made, no matter whether councils choose the collaborative option or the existing Schedule 1 process.

We accept that the current regime is not working as intended for Māori, and that while final decisions are reserved for council, those decisions must be properly informed by all relevant information, including iwi views.

There are many examples of iwi/Māori participating successfully in freshwater management processes.  But I am hearing that there have also been differing expectations and some confusion about their role.

This has led to uncertainty, costs and delays while matters are debated in the courts and some iwi have looked to Treaty of Waitangi settlements to ensure their interests are considered. I want to stress that those Treaty settlement outcomes will be protected.

The Iwi Leaders Group has worked directly on these reforms with us, and I was gratified by the keen interest and positive response from iwi through the consultation hui in March and April.

As I have said, central government will work closely with regional councils to provide guidance and best practice information for implementing the changes. We are all in this together and your input is critical – whether you are from a regional council, an environmental organisation, an iwi group or the productive or energy sectors.

The Ministry for the Environment is working with regional councils and scientists to improve the quality and consistency of data that we need for making sound decisions on freshwater use and management.

National requirements will continue to be provided for through the freshwater national policy statement, which gives councils clear direction to maintain and improve the quality of water in their catchments, as well as the use of the Environmental Protection Authority to assess and progress nationally-significant resource consents, and Water Conservation Orders to protect our wild and scenic rivers.

Despite the recent furore, I want to emphasise that we had not proposed to make any changes to existing Water Conservation Orders, or in any way reduce the important protections they provide.

Rather we wanted to make sure that new applications would not be used to undermine or derail the new collaborative planning efforts that we are fostering.

However, following feedback during the freshwater consultation we have decided that, given goodwill from stakeholders, there is a low risk of Water Conservation Orders being used in this way.

We will, therefore, give the reforms time to bed in before we look at how the Water Conservation Orders process fits with regional planning.

Other parts of the immediate steps for the freshwater reforms include the creation of a National Objectives Framework and better water accounting.

It is the Government’s intention to this year make legislative amendments to facilitate the introduction of a National Objectives Framework.

In the meantime, work continues to progress the development of the National Objectives Framework, including detailed scientific work on populating the framework.

A further period of consultation will be carried out before final decisions on the design and detail of the framework are made.

Just before I finish, I want to touch on another area of work that complements the Government’s freshwater programme – credible state of the environment reporting.

The importance of this work was reinforced by last week’s release of Statistics NZ’s Environment Domain Plan.

The Domain Plan provides a useful picture of the official information about New Zealand’s environment and identifies what can be done to make improvements to this information.

The Government is committed to introducing independent environmental reporting that is underpinned by high quality, consistent statistics that provide a reliable, accurate, and integrated picture of the economy and the environment.

Before we are in a position to do this, we need to address the current barriers to getting reliable, consistent data that provides an integrated picture of the economy and the environment.

In the Government’s 2011 discussion document on environmental reporting, we signalled that changes to the Resource Management Act were required to enable the government to make regulations requiring local authorities and councils to monitor the environment according to specified priorities and methodologies.

This work was completed last year and changes to the Act are included in the Resource Management Reform Bill 2012, which had its second reading in parliament last month.

It is essential that improvements to the quality and accessibility of data are made so that we can debate the issues rather than the integrity of the data.

The Environment Ministry is currently in the midst of this work programme, with announcements likely to be made later this year.

This year is an exciting one for all parties interested in freshwater management reform.

As I have stated throughout this process, while the Government will work at pace to formulate durable solutions, we recognise that these issues are too important to rush.

The speech isn’t on-line yet but a media release on the policy is.


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