Environment Minister David Parker is continuing to blame farmers for poor water quality in rivers even though figures out yesterday show some improvements.
During the election campaign, Parker provoked farmer protests with his proposal to levy a tax on water to pay for cleaning up rivers and streams.
That proposal did not survive the coalition process because New Zealand First opposed it.
Now Parker is looking to regulation which could see farmers restricted to how many stock they could run on their properties.
The restriction would come because they would have to comply with nutrient limits on their paddocks.
But those plans appear to be taking longer to implement than might earlier have been expected.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told POLITIK last week that Parker’s proposed National Freshwater Policy Standard was the next big green item on Labour’s agenda.
“But complex policies like that take a bit of time,” she said.
And in a speech last week Parker said: “We are taking the time we need to ensure we are tackling the issues in the most effective way.”
The issue is likely to open up an intense debate between the rural community and Parker and the Greens as details of the Policy Standard become more clear.
Parker’s approach to this issue has at times been confrontational.
“Farmers Weekly” have reported that Parker told a Catchments Otago symposium on water in Dunedin a week ago that he would get off the back of rural New Zealand when he saw water quality was no longer deteriorating.
“If we can’t get a collaborative outcome from stakeholders, someone has to make a decision, and I’m prepared to be that person,” he said.
However yesterday National River Water Quality Trends released by Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) revealed that for all river water quality parameters monitored over a ten year period, more sites were improving than deteriorating.
The analysis was led by Cawthron Institute Freshwater Group Manager and Ecologist, Dr Roger Young.
He described the overall picture as encouraging and said, “Looking back from 2016 at a decade of data, for every monitored parameter, more sites showed evidence of improving water quality, than degrading.
“My hope is this could represent a turning point in New Zealand’s river health story.
“While this analysis gives us cause for optimism, water quality is just one indicator of river health and there is still more work to be done.
“While all parameters show there are more sites improving than degrading, there are still degrading sites for all parameters.
“In order to continue further improvements, we need to invest in freshwater ecosystem management, routine monitoring, and further research and innovation,” he said.
A similar caution came from the Environmental Defence Society’s CEO, Gary Taylor who said there was no cause for complacency or for taking the foot off the pedal.
“Regional Councils have a long way to go before we can say our waterways are no longer polluted.,” he said.
Parker told the Dunedin symposium that agriculture would have a generation to reverse damage to waterways, but he expected to see some material improvement within five years.
And in Hamilton, he said: “The political battles over water have been fought and won.
“New Zealanders expect their local and central politicians to do what needs to be done to achieve healthy and swimmable rivers and lakes.”
He said that officials were now developing advice on compulsory exclusion of stock from waterways, “after draft regulations were put on hold by the previous government due to pressure from primary sector groups.”
“Additionally, I am seeking advice on regulating high-risk land management practices such as intensive feedlots, ‘spray and pray’, and intensive winter grazing on hill slopes.
“The Government is also considering a number of other issues including royalties on bottled water, and protecting estuarine and wetland environments.
Parker’s criticism of farmers however only goes so far. He has also been working with DairyNZ.
“Dairy NZ leaders were in my office last week and I welcome their positive efforts to support farmers to use best practice and to use the latest science and technology advancements.
“They have identified projects to demonstrate that the sector can lead and influence farmer behaviour and achieve more sustainable land use.
“I hope those will be kicking off in the next few months.
The dairy companies are also playing a part, and I acknowledge the thousands of dairy farmers who have already excluded stock from many waterways and planted along stream banks.”
But planting along waterways and excluding stock is one thing — regulating how many cattle might run on a farm is another.
.It is the National Policy Statement that will be the most controversial aspect of the Government’s plans and it will be the nutrient limits that rural criticism is sure to focus on.
“In my view, we need a new and more comprehensive Freshwater National Policy Statement, which I am looking at now,” Parker said in Hamilton.
“I am reviewing the attributes and deadlines in the NPS.
“I expect that the new NPS will cover land use intensification, sedimentation (both rural and urban), and nutrient allocation.
“We don’t need repeated battles up and down the country on allocation of nutrient discharges.
I have invited the Land and Water Forum (LAWF) to provide advice by the end of May on what can be done now to ‘hold the line’ on water quality to stop it getting worse.
“I have also asked LAWF for advice on how to fairly allocate nutrient and sediment loads across land uses, while meeting science-based ecological bottom lines. “
There is probably very little political downside for Labour in taking a tough line with farmers over nutrient limits; few farmers vote for it.
Instead, Labour is more likely to win support from its confidence and supply partner, the Greens, for any moves to “clean up the waterways.”