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Published: 2017-05-23 08:00:00

Column by Waikato Regional Council chief executive Vaughan Payne

A couple of myths need correction over the proposed plan change for cleaning up the Waikato and Waipa rivers, namely that the proposal seeks to “protect” intensive farming and that this idea is Waikato Regional Council’s fault.

The short response is that the proposal, if implemented, wouldn’t lock in “grandparented” nitrogen discharge rights as suggested and the plan change was written by a multi-sector group, not the council. 

If we are to get the final shape of the plan change right it’s important that all parties have a clear-sighted view of what’s proposed and stick to the facts during the necessary community debate on the issues.

So, for the record, the following detailed information is important to bear in mind.

Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora: Proposed Waikato Regional Plan Change 1 was notified for public submissions by council in October last year. While council notified it, the policy was developed over two-and-a-half years using a Collaborative Stakeholder Group (CSG). Effectively council handed the policy writing pen to our community and the sectors and industries most affected by the goal of improving water quality. This process required a huge amount of deliberation, consultation, collaboration and finally consensus between all parties.

We took this approach to create ownership and foster behaviour change at a community, sector and industry level. Those most affected need to own both the problems and the solutions. It means we all take responsibility and we all own the solutions.

The resulting plan takes us on just the first decade of an 80-year journey to restore and protect the health of our rivers. We are collectively required to do so under the Government’s national policy statement on freshwater, and Te Ture Whaimana o Te Awa o Waikato, the Vision and Strategy for the Waikato River introduced under Treaty settlement legislation. In short to do nothing is not an option, other regions have already implemented plan changes for water quality and our plan change has balanced the environmental, economic and social implications.

The plan seeks to address the four contaminants causing problems for the rivers and lakes of the Waikato and Waipā catchments. Nitrogen is one of them. The others are sediment, bacteria, and phosphorus.

Urban communities and manufacturers have been working on solutions to address these contaminants and others from point sources like factories and sewage treatment facilities for at least the last four decades. These are already regulated by the existing Waikato Regional Plan. They need resource consent, and must be treated to a high standard.  Urban ratepayers across the region are currently spending in excess of $60 million dollars a year to achieve this.

There has also been much good work by rural communities and landowners over this time but the fact is there has still been major intensification within the catchments and, in the odd case, inappropriate land use. Over the last ten years we have had an area six times the size of Hamilton city converted from forestry to pasture and this now makes a significant contribution to the contaminants in our waterways.

For this reason the plan focuses on rural land and not just dairy or drystock. It also addresses the impacts of horticulture and forestry on our waterways.

The suggestion Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora: Proposed Waikato Regional Plan Change 1 protects the highest nitrogen dischargers’ or protects intensive farming long term is not correct.

The proposed plan tackles the contaminants through two components. The development of Farm Environment Plans (FEPs) and the provision of a Nitrogen Reference Point. FEPs are property specific and include time bound actions landowners will undertake to reduce the risks of contaminant loss, including nitrogen. Landowners more than anyone else know how to manage the contaminants within their particular farming system. Every farm will be different, but what the plan change requires is that those discharging the most, must do the most in terms of managing their contaminants.

We know the use of nitrogen reference points will be robustly debated at hearings next year but let’s understand the facts of the how the plan actually does propose to manage nitrogen.

It requires farmers to calculate their current nitrogen loss. The top 25 per cent of nitrogen emitting farms are then required to reduce their losses. The remaining 75 per cent of farms are not required to reduce their losses, and can carry on at existing levels. In short the highest emitters have to make reductions while everyone else can continue to farm as they are. The intention is also to address other discharges in future plan changes.

So the initial steps on nitrogen involve making the highest emitters act now while holding the line on others with the intention of further steps in the next plan change when we have more information. There is no intention to lock any of these arrangements in.

In writing this plan the CSG was clear. The preference was always to allocate contaminant discharge rights at a property scale, matching land use to land capability. The reality is, however, that we as a community don’t currently have the data to implement that. This plan change allows us to collectively gather that knowledge so at the next plan change there are more options available to review allocation.

This plan after all is just the first step on an 80-year journey for our region to achieve the water quality we all aspire to and through our processes we hope to make it workable for all our landowners.

In the meantime, we have to start taking steps to reduce contaminant losses if we want to improve our water quality.  The longer we delay, the harder and more expensive the task will be.