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Three Things You Need To Know About the Government’s Freshwater Proposals

The Government is currently consulting on its proposals for freshwater reform. You have until Thursday 17 October to have your say! Here are three thoughts to help inform your submission.

1. A Big Step Forward

The previous Government’s freshwater standards left a lot to be desired. In particular, they allowed levels of nitrogen in the water that could lead to algal blooms, and potentially be dangerous to wildlife and humans. 

The maximum amount of nitrogen permitted in the new proposals is about 7 times lower. Achieving the new standard would make all our rivers and lakes safe for swimming and our water supplies safe for drinking. 

The Government deserves congratulations for putting this forward. The public needs to show its support to make sure the proposals don’t get ‘watered down’ by those that oppose change. Fortunately, most progressive farmers seem on board with the need for change, which is great to see. 

2. Implementation 

Some of the opposition to the Government’s freshwater proposals comes from parties that would probably oppose any change. However, some is based on reasonable concerns. As we have discussed previously, the big part of the puzzle missing from the proposals is how the new standards will be achieved and who will pay. We have already covered many of these issues

It is hard to say why the Government has dodged this aspect completely. 

The key issue with implementation is avoiding punishing those who are already using the land in more environmentally friendly ways. We should allocate nutrient-leaching rights based on the characteristics of the land – the so-called Natural Capital approach. 

Farms that leach more will no doubt call to ‘grandparent’ their rights, but this is unfair on farmers who have already made changes to lower the environmental impact of their operations.

One example is the Government’s moratorium on dairy conversions. While this might be a reasonable short-term measure, it penalises sheep and beef farmers, and foresters. Their land value is partly based on the possibility of converting to dairy farms, and will be hammered by this change. This is again a signal that the Natural Capital approach will be used to soften that blow. This issue should have been included in the Government’s proposals. 

The other major missing puzzle piece is research into alternative land uses. This is urgently needed to achieve our freshwater and climate goals, while still ensuring that farmers can operate profitably. TOP has a few ideas for changes that are needed here, which I’ll cover in my next blog. 

As for those worried about agricultural emissions, you needn't worry. If implemented, this proposal will swamp any impact of bringing agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme.

3. The Hydro Exemption

The other big flaw in the Government’s proposals is the exemption of hydro schemes. This is a big deal since roughly 50% of all our freshwater flows through a hydro scheme! 

The Government’s position on this is understandable. It is also trying to transition to a low carbon economy and hydro electricity is a big part of that. However, a blanket exemption is not the way to go, and could perhaps only be justified in ‘dry years’. 

And what if freshwater quality can be significantly improved by a relatively minor change in electricity generation? That seems to be a conversation worth having! We need a way for communities to work with hydro generators to find solutions.

It is also worth noting that TOP would charge commercial water users – including hydro dams. This would not push up the cost of power and would generate revenue to invest in cleaning up our waterways. Given the impact hydro dams have on our freshwater, that’s only fair. 

 

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