Stuff - Increased RMA powers and regulation of intensive farming planned in water quality push

Written by Henry Cooke

Increased RMA powers and regulation of some intensive farming practices are included in sweeping plans to increase our freshwater quality announced by the Government.

The moves will result in better water quality by 2023, Environment Minister David Parker promised.

Parker announced the suite of moves in Wellington on Monday, saying the country could not leave future generations to sort out water quality.

The headline moves include an amendment to the Resource Management Act (RMA) within 12 months that would allow councils to review consents in order to more quickly implement water quality standards.

Further down the track are a new National Policy Statement on Freshwater Manager and new environmental standard by 2020.

These changes would aim to protect wetlands, estuaries, and regulate some activities such as intensive winter grazing and feedlots.

Another decision on the way would look at regulating nutrient allocation - usually from fertiliser and livestock urine.

Parker said the vast majority of the country wanted our freshwater quality to improve.

"Clean water is our birthright. Local rivers and lakes should be clean enough for our children to swim in, and put their head under, without getting crook," Parker said.

"As a nation we have been kicking the can down the road on this issue for far too long."

"New Zealanders value our rivers and lakes. More than 80 per cent are committed to improving water quality for the benefit of future generations and they want central and local government, farmers and businesses to do more."

"There will be a focus on at-risk catchments so as to halt the decline. We're not going to leave the hard issues for future generations."

The work programme includes three separate working groups: Kahui Wai Māori to include a Māori voice, a Freshwater Leaders Group chaired by Synlait Milk founder John Penno, and a science group that includes crusading scientist Mike Joy.

The Freshwater Leaders Group is not made up of industry representatives as these groups often are, but land users who are also experts.

Parker said he had asked the National Land and Water Forum to look at this issue after coming to Government, but they had not been able to overcome differences between different industry groups represented at the forum. This showed the "limits of the collaborative process" and it was now up to Government to act.

He underlined this point by noting it would "not be a talk fest."

Crown/Māori relations Minister Kelvin Davis said the Government would work with Māori on the plan. 

Notably, the plans do not include a levy on water, which was Labour's election policy.

"We are committed to a substantive discussion on how to address Maori interests, by taking practical steps to address constraints on Māori land development," Davis said.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Conor said many in the farming industry were already working to improve practices.

"Many in the sector are already working hard to protect the natural resources they depend on, and recognise the importance of enhancing our reputation as a trusted producer of the finest food and fibre products."

But Parker was clear that farmers were a big a part of the problem, and stronger rules were needed.

He said that in some areas 95 per cent of farms are said to be compliant with council rules, but problems are still widespread.

Parker noted that some of the worst pollution was in the one or two percent of waterways in urban areas, however.