The changes have been described as the biggest set of freshwater reforms since the Resource Management Act (RMA) was passed in 1991. They aim to stop further degradation of our rivers and lakes, achieve a noticeable improvement in five years, and restore our waterways within a generation.
The flagship proposals in the Discussion Document are to:
Some of these proposals are still under development and/or will also be consulted on through separate processes (such as the proposed legislative changes), but the Discussion Document nonetheless seeks feedback on all aspects (and provides specific questions to consider). The most advanced proposals (with drafts available online for more detailed feedback) are the proposed new NPSFM, NES for Freshwater, and stock exclusion regulations.
Who will the proposals affect?
Everyone. The proposals are so broad that they will touch all aspects of society. Councils, communities and tangata whenua will need to take part in new freshwater planning processes. Landowners with wetlands on their properties, or who carry out erosion control, install culverts, or flood prevention works will all be affected. Anyone who grazes animals, undertakes commercial vegetable production or irrigated farming, or takes water to irrigate their vineyards or orchards, will be impacted by the changes. Infrastructure operators, developers of land, operators of our 3-waters networks, anyone who likes to swim in a lake or river, fish, or take a boat out. All of us.
The Discussion Document proposes a large number of wide-ranging policy changes, and the implications of some of these will only become clear through more detailed consultation further down the track. We summarise the more significant and immediate aspects of the reforms below.
New Planning Process
While the RMA already contains a specific Collaborative Planning Process that was originally developed to facilitate freshwater planning, the Discussion Document now proposes a new ‘freshwater planning process’ to enable ‘better, faster, more nationally-consistent water management plans’. The new process is also intended to enable councils to meet the deadline of 2025 to fully give effect to the new NPSFM through changes to their regional plans.
As outlined in the Discussion Document, the key features of this new process would be:
New (replacement) NPSFM
The existing NPSFM 2014 would be completely rewritten, from the ground up. In general terms many of the same substantive requirements are present (and new ones added). However, it is proposed to restructure the NPSFM so that it comprises just one objective and thirteen succinct policies, with the rest of the document setting out what is needed in order to implement or give effect to them.
Other features of the draft NPSFM include:
Significantly, the deadline for full implementation of the new NPSFM (with its additional requirements) has been brought forward to 2025 (whereas most Councils have specified an implementation date between 2025 and 2030 for the existing NPSFM 2014 requirements).
New NES for Freshwater
The proposed new NES would directly regulate a number of activities that have the potential to impact on freshwater, by setting out standards to be met and when resource consents will be required.
The key activities and requirements are:
The proposed changes will have significant implications for our environment, communities, and economy, and will affect a wide range of stakeholders.
As usual, some will claim the proposed measures go too far, while others will see them as not going far enough. In particular, concerns have already been raised about the new nitrogen bottom lines, the interim nitrogen limits, and the ‘interim ban’ on land use intensification. The Discussion Document acknowledges that the new standards ‘may require land-use change in some catchments’.
Overall, the proposals provide much more directive guidance for managing freshwater than we have seen previously under the RMA, cover a broader range of environmental attributes and components of the freshwater system, and will require changes to be implemented faster than the current NPSFM timeframes.
While greater national direction or guidance is proposed in many areas, there will remain a strong emphasis on community level engagement and consultation, in developing a ‘long term vision’ to give effect to Te Mana o te Wai, and to set values, environmental outcomes and limits at a catchment level. Provided the national bottom lines are (or will be) met, the National Objectives Framework still provides communities and councils with discretion as to what ‘attribute band’ will be achieved and the timeframes for achieving it. The timeframes can be ‘any length or period’, but interim targets (at intervals of 10 years or less) are required for longer term goals.
The more immediate challenge will be getting robust plans that fully implement the new NPSFM in place by 2025. For many councils the workload necessary to meet the existing NSPFM 2014 requirements was already looking challenging – they will now have more work to do, but less time in which to do it.
To some extent the new freshwater planning process will assist with that, saving time at the ‘back end’ of the planning process through restrictions on appeal rights. However, it will not make the necessary ‘front end’ monitoring and assessment work any easier. The task of investigating the current state of the environment in every catchment, and then setting goals for improvement and limits to achieve them (not to mention methods to allocate resources where catchments are overallocated), all in consultation with communities, should not be underestimated. It is the scope of this work, as much as the more formal statutory planning process, that has delayed progress in many cases.
Perhaps in light of that, the draft NPSFM provides that where a council does not have ‘complete and scientifically robust data’ on the current environmental state, it is to use ‘best efforts’ to proceed in any event, relying on ‘partial data, local knowledge, and information obtained from other sources’. Likewise, in deciding on water quality targets to aim for, councils are required to ‘use the best information available at the time’ and ‘not delay making decisions because of uncertainty about the quality or quantity of the information’. While the desire to make progress is understandable, this degree of urgency introduces a risk that attribute states are not set at the right level to achieve environmental outcomes, or that the social and economic consequences of the associated limits are not fully understood.
In the even more immediate term, the wording of the new NPSFM and NES will require careful attention. There are a number of moving parts to consider. For example, there is the potential for the higher level policies for wetlands and streams in the NPSFM to be more directive (restrictive) than what is contemplated by the substance of the NES and other NPSFM provisions.
Finally, while the proposals deliver on most of the initiatives announced as part of the Essential Freshwater paper available here, they stop short of addressing the third government objective, which is to address water allocation issues (including in terms of interests among Māori and existing users). Further technical assistance may also be needed on the process and options for setting limits in order to achieve environmental objectives.
Your chance to have a say
The Discussion Document, draft NPSFM, draft NES, and draft regulations are all available here. Submission close on 17 October 2019.
If you would like further information on this topic and the implications for you, or assistance with making a submission, please get in touch with Nicky McIndoe, Christina Sheard, Marija Batistich, or Ezekiel Hudspith.
Our thanks to Ezekiel Hudspith and Joe Wright for assistance with the preparation of this newsflash.