The Government has been given a simple challenge; it can regulate to stop dairy farm discharges into streams and rivers, but it will need to begin to sort out Maori claims to water at the same time.
The advice comes in a report from the Land Water Forum, a body set up by the previous Government to resolve the tensions between users and environmentalists over water.
It has consistently argued that Maori claims to water needed to be resolved.
National ignored that advice.
The problem now for the coalition Government is that NZ First Leader, Winston Peters campaigned against iwi getting any rights over the allocation of water.
Peters has argued that changes to the Resource Management Act by National, in particular, the iwi participation clauses, effectively gave iwi a right to intervene in the allocation of water.
National consistently denied that.
“National has put in place Iwi water ownership, and Labour will enable it,”Peters told a public meeting in Whitianga shortly before the election.
However, the matter is not addressed in the coalition agreement.
In a way, the Forum has ducked the big question facing the whole farming industry, and that is nitrogen limits.
They are critical to the Government’s ambition to have all rivers swimmable “within a generation” as Labour promised in its manifesto.
The Forum had been asked to come up with a formula which would allow the allocation of nitrogen discharge rights.
It has not.
Environment Minister David Parker yesterday was not saying what he will do next, but he has previously said he hoped to include the formula in his National Policy Standard on Freshwater which is expected next month.
But the Forum was emphatic because nitrogen limits implied an ownership right, the Government would have to resolve iwi rights first.
That, however, is politically difficult, if not impossible.
National says no-one owns the water; Labour says everyone owns it and NZ First has been implacably opposed to any special concessions for Maori.
The Forum’s report says the outstanding issue of iwi rights and interests is creating uncertainty across the freshwater management system, including for existing water users.
However, any move to allocate nitrogen discharge allowances to an individual property or business would have the effect of clarifying or confirming ownership rights.
“Strengthening the rights of some parties prior to resolving iwi rights and interests will be opposed by iwi and make the process of reaching agreement between Treaty Partners more difficult, time-consuming and costly,” says the report.
Environmental Defence Society CEO, Gary Taylor, a member of the Forum says national leadership is required urgently to set nitrogen limits
“Iwi rights and interests in freshwater and gaps in the science need to be addressed as a matter of urgency,” he said.
“But it is critical this does not lead to inaction.”
Another environmentalist, Guy Salmon, said the report noted that the ongoing delay in settling iwi rights and interests in freshwater was allowing agricultural interests to pre-empt those rights.
“As well, this situation is a barrier to progress on clean-up of rivers,” he said.
Otherwise, the Forum’s report gives some guidance to the Government on issues like dairy intensification.
It says the Minister should consult with regional councils as soon as possible to identify ‘at-risk’ catchments, including the particular activities giving rise to the water quality issues.
Regional councils should also be asked about the proposed timing for council planning to address the issue, and the effectiveness of the range of council, sector and community planning programmes in addressing the decline.
Concern over the capacity or performance of a regional council to address the water quality decline should be included as a factor in whether the Minister should intervene, it says.
Parker said he welcomed this advice.
“As we look at what’s happening in these catchments and what needs to be done, we will work closely with the primary sector, Maori and other interested groups,” he said.
Taylor says this could mean “no more cows” in some catchments.
“There is also a critical role for the Minister, with the Forum recommending the use of prohibited activity status or moratoria to ‘stop the rot’ in catchments where water quality is dire, and councils aren’t acting fast enough,” he said.
“ In some catchments, this might mean no more cows until plans are set; in others, it might be a short-term stop to subdivision.”
But Taylor points out the Forum did not address the specific issue of consents for intensification — an issue that the EDS has been battling in the McKenzie basin.“
“ EDS expects that in most catchments consent for both existing and new intensive land uses impacting fresh water will be required.
“Without this, it is extremely difficult for councils to account for and control the amount of contaminants entering waterways.”
The Forum has decided to disband after this report but has recommended that the Government set up a high powered Land Water Commission – a recommendation which Taylor said was the most important the Forum made but which Parker offered no comment on.
The goal of swimmable rivers is a highly popular one – but the intricacies of achieving it are complex and potentially fractious.