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National Environmental Standards for Freshwater 2020

Published: 4th August 2020

Author: Neil Dent, Gifford Devine

Published in: Rural eSpeaking

Water was the hot topic in the 2017 election campaign. This year, with an election coming up shortly, there seems to have been little talk of water (or much policy at all, so far) with COVID still taking up most of the news space, closely followed by scandals of various sorts.

The National Environmental Standards for Freshwater 2020 (the Freshwater NES), however, are due to be published later this year. Some parts of it will take effect 28 days after it is published while other parts won’t come into effect until the winter of 2021. This year is more than half over, and with the first half of the year being severely disrupted by the COVID lockdown and because the election is looming, there can be no certainty that the new Freshwater NES will be published this year. There is no certainty as to what form it will take, given we may not know which parties will form the government – perhaps sometime in October.

Whatever shape the next government takes, the new Freshwater NES will be published sooner or later as water continues to be one of the major environmental issues for the country, notwithstanding the late July 2020 panel recommendation that the Resource Management Act 1991 (under which the Freshwater NES falls) be repealed and replaced by two new pieces of legislation. Any replacement legislation is likely to be several years away.

Requirements set

The Freshwater NES will set requirements for carrying out certain activities that pose risk to freshwater and freshwater ecosystems. In many cases, people will need consents under the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) from their regional council for carrying out certain activities.

The Standards are designed to:

• Protect existing inland and coastal wetlands
• Protect urban and rural streams from in-filling
• Ensure connectivity of fish habitats (fish passage)
• Set minimum requirements for feedlots and other stockholding areas (to take effect in the winter of 2021)
• Improve poor practice intensive winter grazing of forage crops (to take effect in the winter of 2021)
• Restrict further agricultural intensification until the end of 2024, and
• Limit the discharge of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser to land, and to require reporting of fertiliser use (to take effect in the winter of 2021).

To do list for farmers

It is obvious from the list above that the Standards are at a higher level than current requirements and that some farming practices must change. In some areas, certain farming practices may become uneconomic as a result of the new Standards required.

To conform with the new Standards, farmers will need to:

• Make sure cattle, pigs and deer are kept out of waterways from July 2025 at the latest. Stock must be kept out of any streams more than one metre wide and stock must be kept at least three metres back from banks
• For dairy farmers, synthetic nitrogen fertiliser must be kept below a cap of 190 kilograms of fertiliser per hectare per year. All dairy farmers will need to report synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use to their regional council once a year from mid-2022
• Protect wetlands and streams on their properties, so these areas cannot be drained or developed, and
• Report water usage electronically (this will be phased in over six years) if you have existing resource consents to take certain quantities of water.

As well, resource consents will be needed for:

• Intensifying land use, for example, conversion of land into a dairy farm. This will apply from when the Regulations come into force until the end of 2024
• Winter grazing on forage crops, in certain circumstances such as on paddocks with more than a 10 degree slope or if you want to graze forage crops on more than 50 hectares or 10% of your farm (whichever is greater)
• Stockholding pads from 1 July 2021 (unless your current pad conforms to the minimum standard), and
• Feedlots from when the Regulations come into force.

In the medium term, all farmers will need to have a freshwater module in their farm plan. This is not required immediately but it should be completed over the next 12 months or so as the government will be working with sector groups to develop new Regulations which will set out the exact requirements for mandatory freshwater modules.

Much of what is proposed has been well forecast and, in many cases, many farmers are already taking steps to comply with what they know is coming.

Please contact the author direct for any further comments.

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