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Published: 2007-03-16 00:00:00

Environment Waikato has confirmed new land use rules to cap the amount of nitrogen leaching from rural and urban properties into Lake Taupo.

At a special meeting in Hamilton yesterday, the regional council adopted the proposed variation to its regional plan designed to protect Lake Taupo for the long term. Decisions on submissions to the variation will be publicly available next week.

The new rules make pastoral farming in the lake catchment a controlled activity under the Resource Management Act. The change means farmers will need resource consents for typical pastoral farming operations. About 93 per cent of the nitrogen generated by human activity around the lake comes from pastoral farming activities such as stock grazing and fertiliser use. The cap on nitrogen also applies to wastewater and storm water discharges which accounts for the remaining 7 per cent.

Chairman Jenni Vernon said the new rules were part of the two-pronged approach to maintaining Lake Taupo’s excellent water quality while also protecting farmers’ rights to farm as they do now.

“Water quality and sustainable agriculture are equally important to the economy at local, regional and national levels – it’s our challenge to make decisions that protect water quality while recognising and providing for existing and future land use,” she said.

“We believe these new rules do just that – land owners will be able to farm today they way they farmed yesterday.

“By allowing for nitrogen offsets, our decision also provides flexibility should people want to change the way they use their land in the future.

“This means a farmer or forester, for example, can change the way they use their land if they have negotiated and confirmed decreases in nitrogen elsewhere in the catchment.”

Councillor Vernon said advancements in modelling technology had enabled the council to introduce policies to ensure the long term protection of the lake.

“It is only in recent years that we have had the information to make this possible. Technology, such as the OverseerTM nutrient budgeting model, and knowledge of nutrient losses from farms has progressed to a stage where we can use and enforce rules to reduce pollution in a specific water body,” she said.

“In Taupo we have detailed understanding of factors such as catchment conditions, the impact of agricultural nutrients on water quality and the nutrient limits or targets.

"The implication of the decision is that in sensitive catchments where we have high quality information on the cause and effect relationship between agriculture and nutrients in water bodies, and have defined nutrient limits or targets, land owners must manage those effects and achieve those targets.”

Supporting this approach is the establishment of the $81.5 million fund to permanently remove 20 percent of human generated nitrogen from the catchment over the next 15 years.

The trust is funded by Environment Waikato, Taupo District Council, and the Government. Ngati Tuwharetoa are also partners in the project to protect Lake Taupo.

The trust is charged with developing a programme of work that will encourage and assist land-use change, to purchase land or nitrogen in the Lake Taupo catchment, and to fund other initiatives that assist landowners to reduce the nitrogen impact of their activities on the lake.


  • Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest lake, at 622 square kilometres. The catchment, including the lake, has an area of 3487 square kilometres. The lake is at the heart of a booming economy, with the trout fishery alone generating approximately $70 million of economic activity each year.
  • Ngati Tuwharetoa, the iwi with mana whenua in the Lake Taupo catchment, and the Taupo community have given a clear message they want the water quality of the lake to be protected. This is not just a local issue – the lake is a treasure of national significance.
  • Land uses in the catchment are pastoral farming and indigenous and production forestry. The main farming activities are sheep and beef farming with a small amount of dairy farming (currently only four units within the catchment and two partly within).
  • Scientific evidence over the past 30 years shows the Lake Taupo’s excellent water quality is under threat. Unlike many other lakes, nitrogen, rather than phosphorus, limits phytoplankton growth in this lake.
  • Development and intensification of the surrounding rural and urban land has increased the amount of nitrogen entering the lake through groundwater and rivers. This has promoted algae and phytoplankton growth in the lake.
  • In response to concerns about changes in the lake and the potential for future intensification, Environment Waikato started monitoring the lake water quality in 1995. The council commissioned further technical investigations in mid 2000 to learn more about lake water quality and the influence of catchment land uses.
  • At that time, Environment Waikato also circulated an issues and options paper among key stakeholders and the general public, and invited local people to public meetings.
  • In 2001, Environment Waikato resolved to take positive steps to protect the lake from any further long-term decline in water quality. The principal objective was to maintain current water quality in the Lake Taupo in the long term. The time scale was intended to allow for the fact that groundwater in the catchment takes many years to reach the lake.
  • Because land use and lake water quality are inextricably bound, it is well understood we must look to managing the activities on the land to protect the lake.
  • With the best scientific and technical knowledge available, Environment Waikato determined that lake water quality can be maintained at its current level provided that nitrogen leaching from the land is capped at current levels and 20 per cent of manageable nitrogen is removed.
  • It has been calculated that some 550 tonnes of nitrogen per annum enters the lake from people’s activity on the land - 93 per cent comes from pastoral farming and seven per cent from storm water and wastewater.
  • Environment Waikato began a further extensive period of consultation with stakeholders including central government, Taupo District Council, Ngati Tuwharetoa and other landowner groups in the catchment to formulate a strategy to achieve the stated objective.
  • The strategy involved a two-pronged approach:
    • a planning or resource management approach under the RMA - Variation 5 to the proposed Waikato Regional Plan
    • the establishment of a public fund to assist landowners to reduce their outputs of manageable nitrogen - the Lake Taupo Protection Trust.

Variation 5 – what does it mean?

  • Variation 5 aims to maintain current water quality by the year 2080, manage farming activities and avoid near shore effects from wastewater. At the same time it seeks to minimise the costs of doing so, while mitigating any social and cultural effects and avoiding any consequential adverse effects of land use change.
  • To achieve these objectives the Variation caps the amount of nitrogen leaching from land in the catchment by grandparenting nitrogen emissions, that is, it allocates nitrogen on the base of existing nitrogen leaching.
  • Under the Variation commercial farmers are required to obtain a resource consent to continue farming.
  • The Variation also sets out that human induced nitrogen leached in the catchment must be reduced by 20 per cent. This will be done by using a public fund to purchase reductions and by reticulating all of the currently unsewered communities.
  • It is important to note, these rules have been tailor-made for the Lake Taupo catchment. The model won’t necessarily apply to other communities.

Frequently asked questions

Q. Will Variation 5 will be a model for other catchments in the Waikato region and elsewhere in New Zealand?
First and foremost, these rules have been tailor-made for the Lake Taupo catchment. The model won’t necessarily apply to other communities.

In Waikato, we have already signalled our priority areas are Taupo and the Upper Waikato River catchment.

Over the next two years we will be focussing our attention on developing information and potential rules for the next most sensitive catchments in our region after Taupo, being the Waikato River above Karapiro.

There will be no surprises - we’ll consult with the communities, follow a transparent process and ensure people have time to participate and adjust to changes, if any are proposed. There are a whole range of issues to consider – the scale and scope of the issue that needs to be addressed, community readiness for change and acceptance that regulating farming is the way to improve water quality and achieve sustainability.

Q. The threat to Taupo’s water quality has been around for a long time so why is it only now the issue is being addressed through land use controls?
The problem of nitrogen leaching as a consequence of ordinary farming practice has emerged over many years but it’s only in recent years that we have had sufficient scientific evidence to act on this knowledge.

The evidence shows that the nutrients from animal urine and dung pass through soil and into water. It’s only recently that the OverseerTM nutrient management model has provided us with sufficiently accurate estimates of nitrogen discharge. It is accepted as an appropriate alternative to direct measurement of a non-point source discharge. Because we can now measure these discharges, it is possible to manage them. Previously it might not have been be possible to enforce land use rules due to the fact that these non-point source or diffuse discharges were difficult to identify and measure.

Q. What has been the response of the Taupo community to this proposal?
There is widespread acceptance that the purpose of the variation is to maintain the water quality of Lake Taupo and at the same time recognise and provide for existing land uses. Both are clearly important in terms of sustainable resource management.

Q. What does ‘grandparenting’ mean for land owners?
Land owners in the catchment can carry on tomorrow doing what they have historically done. Nothing changes for land owners until they want to increase the nitrogen leached from their property - if for example if a farmer wanted to increase productivity in a way that increases nitrogen leaching, or if a forester wanted to change their land use to farming or residential development. To do so under the Variation, they would need to secure a nitrogen offset elsewhere in the catchment.

Through the hearings process, the committee found that whilst there was general agreement that nitrogen leaching to the lake will be capped by the Variation because the lake is important to protect, the most contested issue has been nitrogen allocation. Submitters pointed out the amount of nitrogen each landowner is allowed to leach under the Variation is critical to both their existing businesses and future aspirations for developing land.

The committee concluded that in order to attain the objectives of the Variation and so achieve sustainable management, the grandparenting regime should be retained.

Q. Is this an example of the RMA blocking progress?
Not if you look at international market signals favouring products from sustainable production systems.

Discussions with leaders in the agricultural sector would also suggest there will be real value in using consents to establish the legitimacy of farmers’ rights to farm. It will give farmers certainty and guaranteed freedom to operate.

Q. What is the role of the Lake Taupo Protection Trust?
The trust is the second part of the two-pronged approach to maintaining the quality of Lake Taupo’s water. It will administer the $81.5 million public fund designed to assist the community to achieve the objectives and policies of the variation. It will use the funds to reduce the level of nitrogen leaching into the lake by 20 per cent over 15 years. It will do this in a range of ways, including:

  • buying nitrogen directly
  • buying land and converting it to low nitrogen uses
  • funding research into:
  • new ways to increase production without leaching more nitrogen
  • different farm practices
  • other land use opportunities and technological advances.

Q. New Zealand’s economy is based on agriculture – how do we make sense of the committee’s finding that farming requires consents under s15 of the RMA?
New Zealand also trades on its clean green image and that too has value. Since the RMA was enacted we have successfully managed point sources of pollution to the stage where they make up only about 10–30 per cent of the total nutrient load of our rivers, with 70–90 per cent of the pollution in our rivers coming from pastoral land uses. The agricultural sector recognises it will have to take responsibility if we are just to maintain current water quality in areas of intensive agricultural development. The dairy sector, the largest part of the agricultural sector in the Waikato region, has already taken action on this issue. The Fonterra Dairying and Clean Streams Accord and the recent Dairy Industry Environmental Strategy aim not only to improve environmental outcomes but also to ensure sustainable, profitable production for the long term.