Last month, Ministers Nick Smith and David Carter formally charged the National Land and Water Forum to advise on the next phases of central government intervention in freshwater quality and allocation decisions. The Forum is a broad-based group of national stakeholders in water quality and utilisation, and advised the Government on its recent National Policy Statement on Freshwater.

Their release said: “The Forum is to report to Government by May 2012 on methods, tools and governance arrangements for setting limits for water quality and quantity and by November 2012 on methods and tools on allocation.”

It’s clear that the next Government (assuming National-led) plans to provide much more ‘guidance’ to regional councils on water quality and management issues. The Cabinet paper behind this announcement observed:

“Effective limits for water quantity and especially quality are not being adequately set and managed to …”

“The incentives to delay setting limits are strong, particularly in relation to limits on water quality. Setting effective limits that reflect community and iwi values is both technically and politically difficult. It takes time and resources, and involves winners and losers. Existing governance structures, information, guidance and support are not sufficient to facilitate well-informed and timely decision making on limits. However, effective limits are required to deliver on New Zealanders’ values and expectations for water and to provide investment certainty, especially for long term infrastructure. If action on freshwater management is not taken now, existing problems will become increasingly difficult and expensive to address, and new problems will emerge …”

“Managing to limits can also be difficult, and some regulatory tools are missing or require improvement. For example, there is a lack of regulatory control over many diffuse discharges from land use activities …” [What they’re talking about here is more intensive farming.]

So, the job isn’t getting done by regional authorities. They had their chance, and they blew it.

What are Smith and Carter planning to look at? Again, from their Cabinet paper (which you can download here) …

“…the work programme will involve consideration of:

  • measures for providing any further guidance (if needed in addition to the NPS) on national interests and values that must be reflected in decisions at the regional or catchment levels
  • efficient and improved governance structures for limit-setting (e.g., committees at regional or catchment levels to advise regional councils, and/or to advise the Minister for the Environment on issues as they arise), including provision for stakeholder involvement
  • specific provisions for iwi/Māori participation in limit-setting processes and decisions at catchment, regional and national levels
  • information, research and modelling tools that are required to understand the economic, environmental, social and cultural consequences of limits, to enable well-informed decision making
  • training, funding, and support for those involved in setting limits
  • means for incorporating limits, and methods for managing to them, into regional plans (which might include the development of national environmental standards or similar regulatory tools, in the interests of consistency and efficiency)
  • monitoring and auditing provisions for limit-setting processes
  • step-in provisions, and criteria for triggering them, to allow Ministers to intervene where limit-setting processes stall.”

These are the comprehensive topics on which the Land and Water Forum will advise by May of next year. And note that last item in particular.

Of course, any Government policy-making on these matters will have huge ramifications for Hawke’s Bay, given the crucial importance of water security, quality and use in our primary producing region. Meantime, our Regional Council is forging ahead with all sorts of water policy-making in the months ahead … perhaps only to be superseded soon by Government.

Somebody’s wings will be getting clipped!

Tom Belford

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