Fresh water reforms the big challenge

Bay of Plenty Regional Council chair Doug Leeder at Tauranga’s waterfront.

Introduction: With councils heading into their first full year since Local Body Elections, we asked the regional chairs in our coverage area what they think their authority’s biggest challenges are.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council chair Doug Leeder says his council has plenty of challenges ahead but by far, the biggest one is the proposed water reforms.

“The Government proposals as they currently stand, will set huge demands for planners and other experts that understand the interface of the freshwater issues – which are generally rural – and there are simply not enough of them available in New Zealand right now,” says Doug.

“We all want clean water and it’s going to take investment, co-operation and compromise from everyone to achieve that. But we’ve signaled to the Ministry for the Environment, capacity and the capability to deliver on the proposed reforms are going to be a big challenge for us and our local communities. Regional councils don’t currently have the resources that will be needed to deliver on the reforms within the proposed timeframes.”

The Government released its Essential Freshwater proposals titled ‘Action for Healthy Waterways’ on September 5 last year. The purpose of the proposals relating to the farming sector is to see the trend change towards water quality improving, as part of a broader aim towards a more sustainable future.

Some key points include requirements that farms must have a Farm Environment Plan with a freshwater module; avoid further intensification of land use until the new National Policy Statement becomes operational through regional plans; reduce excessive nitrogen leaching into waterways; exclude stock from waterways including crossings in some cases; ensure that intensive winter grazing, if used, is managed within minimum standards, or apply for resource consent; and reduce pollution from stock holding areas.

The Government ran consultation from September 5-October 31 – after assessing feedback this year it will look to introduce a new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and other legal instruments that will enable freshwater resources, waterways and ecosystems to be restored to a healthy state within a generation.

As the regional authority, Bay of Plenty Regional Council will be tasked with monitoring progress and encouraging advancement by landowners to adhere to new rules once implemented by government. 

Doug says for his council to undertake the proposed FEP activity monitoring, for example, BOPRC will have to employ another eight to 12 people. “Plus, the discussion document suggests that we’ll have to notify new plan changes by 2023 and have them operative by 2025 – this is five years ahead of our current schedule. It’s really going to compress the timeframes for our consultation with iwi and the community on the plan changes, and is likely to compromise the quality of our engagement work.

“It will put real pressure on those that we need to consult with, and will again require more staff, especially planners that are already scarce, than we currently have to get those plan changes through.”

Doug says that under the current National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management requirements, BOPRC established nine Water Management Areas – known as WMAs – for developing localised plan changes to maintain or improve water quality and quantity.

Doug says that by rolling out plan changes for each WMA, the regional council believed it could offer a meaningful local engagement process and a tailored approach for each area.

“I think it’s a more motivating approach for our local communities, who all have different water quality interests, use priorities, topographical or economic challenges, values and concerns.

“That’s the whole essence of it – if you involve local people and say: ‘These are what we see as the key challenges for your local waterways, can we work on a solution to the problems together? You will get much more engagement than saying: ‘This is the problem and this is the way we are going to fix it’.

“The risk with the new Government proposals is that – because of the time pressure we are facing – we’ll have to combine it all into just one Plan Change across the whole region.

Asked if it takes away each WMA’s voice, Doug says: “Yes, I think it will”. “Across the whole Bay of Plenty – and you can roll this through NZ – the issues in terms of water quality and water degradation are not the same in every catchment,” says Doug.

“There are some areas where yes, the decline needs to be arrested. But others, in terms of ecological health they are probably fine – so why should we apply a broad brush, one-size-fits-all approach to the whole lot?

“Each of the WMAs we’ve established are essentially a catchment, and within a catchment, are many sub-catchments that all have different water management issues – the people who are best able to address the issues in a catchment are the people who live or work in the area.”

One thing Doug would like MFE and the Crown take on board and implement is prioritisation of catchments “so we move first in the places that have an identified problem”.

“This means we’d work on the most vulnerable or degraded waterways and catchments first and can work more intensively by focusing effort and resourcing in those areas. Then in the catchments where no problems are evident – we can maintain the water quality there and roll out any further requirements at a later date.”

“It’s an approach we’re already taking for our operational work with BOP landowners through our Focus Catchments programme.”

Doug says the regional government sector has also made some recommendations to the Minister about streamlining plan change processes so regulatory change can happen more quickly.

“You take our Rotorua nutrient management plan change (Plan Change 10) for example – that’s taken an inordinate amount of time and money. I think PC10 started in about 2004 – and in 2020 it’s still working its way through Environment Court processes.

“It seems that the Minister has listened to this – and changes to the RMA are coming that should help for future plan changes.”


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