Planner Sharon Dines analyses the proposed changes in Freshwater Policies

With a goal of stopping degradation, improving quality and reversing past damage to freshwater systems, the government has proposed a comprehensive suite of policy documents and legislative changes related to freshwater management. Water allocation issues, and Maori interests are also addressed within these proposals.

Local and regional councils, and the agricultural sector, will be strongly affected by these changes, which include Amendments to the RMA, a new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPSFM), and a National Environmental Standard for Freshwater (NES); along with Stock Exclusion Regulations.

An RMA Amendment Bill was introduced to Parliament in September, which impacts on plan-making processes.

“If passed, the Amendment would essentially repeal the collaborative plan-making process,” says planner Sharon Dines.

The Amendment enables the appointment of a Freshwater Commissioner; it gives regional councils five years to come up with a plan to implement the draft NPSFM; and implements a new freshwater plan making process, which will involve the appointment by the Freshwater Commissioner of a decision-making panel for each freshwater plan.

These panels will have enhanced hearing powers and will make a recommendation on the plan and submissions to the relevant Council, which can accept or reject the recommendation.

“This is going to require a lot of work in a short space of time,” says Sharon. “Based on our experience with the Auckland Unitary Plan and Christchurch Replacement District Plan processes, the plan-making process is likely to be time consuming for those involved, timeframes will be tight and appeal rights will be limited.”

The draft NPSFM overhauls the text of the existing NPSFM (for the third time in eight years), with notable clarifications and additions.

“There’s a clear hierarchy in priorities, with the health and wellbeing of waterbodies and freshwater ecosystems sitting at the very top,” Sharon explains. “The essential health needs of people come next; followed by the ability of people and communities to provide for their social, economic and cultural wellbeing, now and in the future.”

With water quality as the priority, the draft NPSFM includes strong provisions to protect inland wetlands, streams and fish passage. However, there are some conflicting policies and overlapping definitions which may prove problematic.

“Anyone who needs to undertake activities in wetlands – for example, quarry operators, network utility operators or developers – will be impacted,” says Sharon. “Wetland mapping is going to be crucially important; and the information collection, monitoring and reporting burden on councils could be significant.”

Activities related to streams and fish passage, particularly those that require diverting or infilling of waterways, will face similar challenges.

In the agricultural sector, the new proposals set out a range of rules and requirements that particularly target intensive farming activities like dairy and commercial vegetation production; as well as 13 high-priority catchments across the country.

“The rule framework provides relatively prescriptive permitted activity rules. If these rules are not complied with, activity status defaults to discretionary and the farming activity requires a resource consent,” Sharon explains.

The Minister for the Environment has chosen the alternative path of the development of the NPSFM so there will be no Board of Inquiry process supporting the preparation of the NPSFM.

The present consultation process is, therefore, effectively the only opportunity for public input. The Minister is taking advice from a number of advisory groups – Maori Freshwater Forum, Freshwater Science and Technical Advisory Group, Freshwater Leaders Group, Essential Freshwater Regional Sector Group (regional councils) and has appointed an Independent Advisory Panel to consider submissions.

Do you need some help in determining how these proposals will affect you? For more information on the impact these changes might have on your organisation contact Claire KellyHamish Wesney or Sharon Dines. 

For further information please contact Sharon Dines

14 October 2019