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Important decisions due for Waikato and Waipa rivers plan change proposals

Release from Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora
Important decision times are approaching for a groundbreaking, multi-million dollar regional plan change process aimed at restoring and protecting the health of the Waikato and Waipa rivers.

The Healthy Rivers: Plan for Change/Wai Ora: He Rautaki Whakapaipai project has been running since 2012, and has involved river iwi, Waikato Regional Council and a wide range of key stakeholders, including the farming sector. A unique multi-sector Collaborative Stakeholder Group (CSG) recently finalised a plan change proposal.

The plan change is designed to take the rivers on the first stage of an 80-year journey towards being safe for swimming and food gathering along their entire lengths, as is required by the legally binding Crown-iwi Te Ture Whaimana o Te Awa o Waikato (Vision and Strategy for the rivers). The Vision and Strategy stemmed from Treaty settlement legislation giving iwi a central role in protecting their tupuna awa (ancestral rivers). The CSG had regard to both the Vision and Strategy and the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management in its deliberations.

Now key decision times are coming this month when the Healthy Rivers Wai Ora committee (made up of iwi governors and regional councillors) and the full regional council are due to decide whether to notify the proposed plan change for public consultation. The committee meets on Monday 5 September and the council on 15 September.

“We are at a crossroads with this massive project focused on the health of two of our key rivers, which are hugely important to both our environmental and economic wellbeing,” said the CSG’s independent chair Bill Wasley.

“I am extremely grateful to iwi, regional stakeholders and all parties on the CSG who have been involved in this groundbreaking project.”

Mr Wasley said having the many and varied parties on the CSG agree a plan change recommendation was a huge achievement. “Our hats are off to all the parties for the fantastic way they’ve collaborated to get to this point. Representatives of key land users – such as farmers and horticulturalists – have made huge contributions.”

The proposed plan change will target the contaminants nitrogen, phosphorous, pathogens and sediment getting into the rivers. These can harm the health of water bodies or present risks to people and stock, and the aim is to reduce their presence to acceptable levels.

Due to the extent of change required, the CSG has recommended an 80-year staged approach to achieving the water quality required by the Vision and Strategy for the rivers. The first stage covered by the draft plan change is actions over a decade that will ultimately result in 10 per cent of the change towards the required standard.

Analysis indicates the measures proposed by the CSG will make major improvements in bacteria levels and some improvement in phosphorus and sediment levels in the first 10 years. “The analysis highlights that the proposed policy mix will achieve significant improvements in water quality across the catchments,” says a report commissioned by the project’s Technical Leaders Group.

Other results of the first 10 years’ actions would only be apparent at a later time. This is because the mitigation, the contaminant, the location and the receiving water body all affect the length of time for results to show up. Nitrogen lags, in particular, mean changes on the land to reduce nitrogen take some time to show up in the water.

The changes to land use practices and rules involved will be significant for many farmers and other landowners. This was recognised by the CSG which supported a phased approach to achieving the Vision and Strategy. So implementation of the new rules by the regional council will also be staged to provide landowners with time to transition, and also to focus effort where it is most needed for protecting water quality.

It’s estimated the suggested measures could result in a four per cent drop in annual profit worth around $40 million a year across a range of farming sectors. This figure takes into account projections that reduced profit could be offset to some degree by costs savings through, for example, farmers reducing fertiliser use which can harm water bodies.

“The profit of some farms – which can be over-fertilised - may improve when fertiliser inputs are reduced and this would also likely have the benefit of reduced nutrient losses to waterways. If that eventuates, it would be a win-win,” said Mr Wasley.

The CSG’s full draft plan change recommendations are available via www.waikatoregion.govt.nz/healthyrivers

Specific ideas for boosting river health being suggested in the proposed plan change include:

  • getting more stock out of waterways
  • new resource consent requirements and introducing extra restrictions for land use change
  • additional requirements for  forestry harvesting
  • management of direct discharges to the rivers
  • targeting particular catchments for special attention
  • nitrogen discharge benchmarking and requirements for high emitters to reduce discharges
  • requirements for greater planning of land use activities.

“Such changes will require a lot of coordinated effort. We want to keep things as simple as possible and we’ll be communicating further with the wider public over the details of what’s proposed as the plan change process proceeds,” said the regional council’s science and strategy director Tracey May.

“While implementing the plan change will be huge for all involved, it’s also great to be laying the groundwork for what will be a major, intergenerational effort to protect our rivers.”

Public consultation is due to be carried out once a plan change recommendation is signed off by the council, giving the wider public the chance to have a formal say on what’s proposed. It’s expected the submissions process will lead to further refinements to the plan change. Future work on the health of other major rivers in the region is also due in coming years.

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