A groundbreaking plan change proposal aimed at restoring and protecting the Waikato and Waipa rivers has today been approved by Waikato Regional Council for public notification. Councillors were split 7-7 on a motion to approve and the measure was passed on the casting vote of the chairperson Paula Southgate.
It means the Healthy Rivers: Plan for Change/Wai Ora: He Rautaki Whakapaipai project’s proposed plan change is now due to be formally publicly notified next month.
Explaining her use of the casting vote, Ms Southgate said the council was legislatively obliged to address water quality in the rivers due to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater and Te Ture Whaimana o Te Awa o Waikato (Vision and Strategy for the Waikato and Waipa rivers). Also, passing the motion honoured the huge collaboration and technical input into the project, as well as the council’s co-governance partnership with river iwi. Those iwi and major stakeholders supported notification. Water quality, she added, was a number one issue for Waikato people.
Public notification will begin a process whereby the wider community has a formal chance to submit on the proposed plan change, while new land use change measures take immediate effect on notification (others rules will be implemented in a phased way over time). The council agreed that the public submissions period will be no less than 80 working days. Under law, the minimum time is 20 days but the council extended this to take into account the fact that the final quarter of the year is a busy time for many. Also, what’s proposed is complex and detailed and it was felt a longer period is needed so that people better understand the meaning and impact of the policies and rules.
“Today’s vote marks a major step on the journey to restoring and protecting the Waikato and Waipa rivers,” said Cr Alan Livingston, co-chair of the Healthy Rivers Wai Ora committee which recommended the plan change to the council. The committee is made up of river iwi representatives and regional councillors.
“The next step following formal public notification is to hear what the wider community has to say on the proposed plan change. We strongly encourage the public to have their say before this plan change is finalised. We will be publicising how people can have their say shortly.”
The proposed plan change was prepared by a multi-sector Collaborative Stakeholder Group (CSG) involving iwi, the council and stakeholders, including the farming sector. “This plan change has been the result of thousands of hours of work over the last three years by the CSG, iwi and a technical leadership group. Council’s decision today respects that significant investment by all parties,” said Cr Livingston.
Once the submissions process kicks off upon public notification anyone can make a submission on the proposed plan change, and can support, oppose or take a neutral stance on its various parts. They can also indicate if they would like to speak at a hearing. Early next year, a summary of submissions will be made available describing all submitters’ requests and the reasons for them. People will then be able to indicate whether or not they support submissions. This will be followed by a hearings committee considering submissions on the plan, with people having an opportunity to speak to their submissions. Once the hearings committee releases its decision, people will have the option of appealing to the Environment Court. A summary of the proposed plan change is available at www.waikatoregion.govt.nz/healthyrivers.
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 length, as provided for in the Vision and Strategy. This Vision and Strategy stemmed from Treaty settlement legislation giving iwi a central role in protecting their tupuna awa (ancestral rivers). The plan change, as per Government requirements, focusses on 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 proposed plan change involves actions over a decade that will ultimately result in 10 per cent of the change towards achieving Te Ture Whaimana. 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.
Specific ideas for boosting river health being suggested in the proposed plan change include:
- getting more stock out of waterways
- upon public notification, new resource consent requirements and introducing extra restrictions for land use intensification
- 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.
Council chief executive Vaughan Payne acknowledged suggested new land use restrictions, which would make it harder for people to more intensively farm land, had caused concerns, as had the fact they will be effective as soon as the plan is publicly notified. But he said the benefits of such arrangements included the fact the rule required resource consents to be applied for when people wish to intensify and, therefore, gave the ability for the council to require mitigations of any extra contaminants contributing to water quality decline. The concept of controlling water quality impacts by requiring resource consents has been applied to the intensification of urban areas for decades. “It’s only appropriate that we now apply the same approach to the intensification of rural areas,” Mr Payne said.
“Another key benefit is that land use intensification restrictions, along with other proposed rules in the plan change, would help protect the huge investment taxpayers and ratepayers, as well as individual farmers and growers, have already made in improving water quality in the region.”
For example, more than$200 million is being invested through the Waikato River Authority in cleaning up the rivers, $80 million has gone into protecting Lake Taupo, and some $13 million has been spent on Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora. “On top of that, the likes of the farming sector and local councils have made a very significant and commendable financial investment on measures to protect water quality,” said Mr Payne.
On land use, today’s meeting passed a motion that Mr Payne prepare a guidance note saying staff processing applications for land use could take into account:
- whether a consent applicant could give evidence that a property had recently been bought and they could not reasonably have known about a new land use rule
- whether an applicant could show evidence that the property concerned had historically been used for a proposed activity.