The highly regarded, science-based Cawthron Institute has issued a sharply critical report, prepared for Fish & Game, on the Government’s National Policy Statement (NPS) on Freshwater Management, which took effect on 1 July 2011.

Here is Cawthron’s summary assessment …

“The lack of national standards that apply to all water bodies and the likely long period for implementation, combined with new subsidies for irrigation schemes that are likely to result in further intensification of land use, suggest that despite the NPS the condition of New Zealand’s lakes, rivers and wetlands is likely to decline for several more years and possibly much longer.”

Cawthron is especially critical of the NPS’ handling of ‘diffuse discharges’ — the contaminant run-off from farms — which it considers will increase as a result of further intensification of farming, and which is the primary cause of NZ’s polluted waterways.

Effectively, Cawthron argues that unless regional councils are clearly instructed to require consents for diffuse discharges, and thereby limit these discharges, they are highly unlikely to do so. And if they don’t, our waterways will further deteriorate … despite the NPS. Says Cawthron: “… this policy will have no effect on the main source of the problem unless and until councils change their regional plans to require consents for diffuse discharges from  livestock.” Anyone care to bet where the HB Regional Council will come out on that one?!

Presently, only the Bay of Plenty (for some Rotorua Lakes catchments) and Environment Waikato (for Lake Taupo) have rules to deal with increasing farming intensity.

In addition, Cawthron challenges the length of time regional councils are given — until 2030 — to effectuate the changes that are called for by the NPS.

And further, the assessment notes that regional councils are only required to improve the condition of waterways overall in their jurisdictions … that is, some waterways can be allowed to deteriorate, so long as that decline is offset by improvements in other waterways in the region. Such ‘offsets’ have been found to be ineffectual elsewhere in the world.

The report compares the NPS with the stronger recommendations made by the Board of Inquiry, appointed in 2008, which received submissions and held hearings around New Zealand during 2009. Environment Minister Nick Smith referred those recommendations to the Land and Water Forum (representing over fifty key stakeholder organisations), which endorsed most of them. Clearly, however, the NPS backed away from several of the toughest, and most essential, recommendations.

This is not a critique from a bunch of wild-eyed greenies.

The chief executive of Cawthron, Gillian Wratt, was recently appointed by Environment Minister Nick Smith to serve on the Board of the new Environmental Protection Agency.

Given the weak guidance, broad discretion and loose timetable still given regional councils by the NPS, HBRC’s implementation of the policy will require persistent monitoring … especially with so many key decisions on the region’s waterways about to be made.

Tom Belford

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