Clarky's Comment - November 2013

With the Ministry for the Environment release earlier this month of the Discussion Document on the Proposed amendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2011 it is timely to reflect on what fresh water quality means to New Zealand's economic well-being and the role of commercial forests in that. See: proposed-amendments-nps-freshwater-management/index.html.

There should be no doubt that overall improvement in the water quality in our rivers and lakes is fundamental to our economic success as a nation. Just consider where most of our export earnings come from (primary sector land-based production and tourism) and how significant clean water is to production from the land, marketing of food and tourism. It is a no-brainer that we look after our water quality, or we are in big trouble.

I am heartened by what is happening in this space. The Land and Water Forum was a long and tortuous but ultimately productive stakeholder consultation process that set the foundation for this latest consultation document. The document suggests adding to and changing some elements of the National Policy Statement on Fresh water Management (NPS-FM).

The consultation document has a lot going for it. It is in my view a big step forward in seeking to provide some guidance to Regional Council planners struggling to interpret what the NPS means for them. It should serve to reduce deference to courts to interpret Parliament's intent.

Of particular note is that Regional Councils (that allocate water and determine the rules relating to allowable discharges) are being asked to account for not only allocation of water but also the sources of water contamination. Freshwater accounting is one component of the required information. It requires an assessment of all water takes (including those allowed by regional plan rules, stock and domestic water, and unauthorised takes) and all sources of relevant contaminants (including diffuse discharges). Diffuse discharges are specifically identified in the footnote to include animal and fertiliser discharges.

This is a very significant milestone in advancing the alignment of private and public good when it comes to land use and investment decisions and impacts on fresh water quality. If these recommendations are incorporated into the NPS-FM then for the very first time in New Zealand's history we have a requirement on Regional Councils to actively manage land use rules to factor in diffuse discharges when seeking to meet freshwater quality standards.

At present we have no new forest planting and significant conversion of forest to pastoral farming. That is also impacting on confidence to invest in wood processing. The most significant barrier to investment in new planting is land which is set mostly by farmer-to-farmer transactions. To date pastoral land values have been underpinned by the fact that the polluter pays principle has not been applied to the pastoral sector (witness the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars being injected to clean up N & P pollution of the Taupo and Rotorua lakes). Only when we get this principle being applied will we see land use change that enhances our fresh water quality without massive taxpayer input.

These changes will not let forestry "off the hook" as harvesting operations will have to be carefully managed to ensure sedimentation does not become our " archillies heel". Nevertheless long-run data, including in some cases macro-invertebrate data, have generally shown that forestry done properly performs very well on the water quality front and can contribute significantly to the quality of water in our landscapes.

Another positive feature of the proposed changes is the requirement of Councils to involve Iwi in key decisions relating to fresh water policies. This puts Iwi in a powerful position to influence policies and we know that most are keen to see our water quality enhanced.

The latest KPMG Agribusiness Agenda 2013 Vol 4. found that 91% of Auckland voters surveyed Agreed or Strongly Agreed with "Strengthening of legislation to protect and conserve the pristine nature of NZ's waterways, and landscapes". This was the strongest and most consistent response to any of the questions relating to the balancing of the needs of the environment, communities and business.

My main concern with the consultation document is not with the intent, but with the timeframes allowed for implementation. "By 2030, councils are required to have set freshwater objectives that reflect national and local values." That timeframe seems bizarre and a recipe to do nothing!

There is an opportunity now to respond to the consultation document. PF Olsen encourages you to do so. It is important for our future prosperity.

PF Olsen acknowledges the massive input of Peter Weir and his employer Ernslaw One for representing the voice of commercial forestry during the 2-year process.