What the Waikato Regional Council's new Plan Change 1 means for farmers and our biggest river

Updated

Regional councils are struggling to formulate regional plans to deal with nitrogen leaching into their waterways after decades of dairy farming. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Eloise Gibson looks under the bonnet of the Waikato Regional Council's Plan Change 1 to explain what it means for farmers and the quality of water in our longest river. She finds plenty that is worrying the players on all sides of the debate about dairying and nitrogen leaching into our waterways.

As the Government strives to be seen to be doing something to improve water quality in streams and rivers, regional councils around the country continue the long, slow process of addressing water quality in regional plans. Waikato is home to an abundance of lush dairying land and generations of dairy farmers, as well as newer dairy conversions. Running through the middle of the region is the country’s longest and most significant river, the Waikato. Facing criticism for doing too little, too late to rescue the region’s water quality, the council is bringing in new standards. But some farmers feel they’ve been ambushed.

How dirty is the river now?

That all depends on where you dip in. It starts out very clean, at lake Taupo, and remains swimmable until you get to Hamilton city. In the city and lower reaches of the river nutrient levels are high by national standards: E.Coli levels are often too high for swimming and there are guest appearances by giardia, crytosporiudium and other nasties. The council blames a mix of farming, storm-water runoff and sewage discharges, among other things. The upper river’s eight hydro dams -- a major source of renewable power -- also change the water quality by allowing aquatic plants and phytoplankton to grow in hydro lakes. Since the river also supplies up to 15 per cent of Auckland’s drinking water, hefty treatment is needed to get it up to tap-water standard.

So what’s changing?

The Waikato Regional Council has drafted Proposed Waikato Regional Plan Change 1 , aka its Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora plan. This wasn’t an entirely voluntary move – both Government freshwater legislation and Te Ture Whaimana o Te Awa o Waikato (the Vision and Strategy for the Waikato and Waipa rivers, adopted as part of the government’s Treaty settlement legislation) require the council to act.

In September, after two years of consultation with iwi, farming groups, community representatives and NGOs, the council published draft policies and rules to reduce sediment, bacteria and nutrients (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus) flowing to the river from an area of about 1.1 million hectares.

The council says it wants to restore and protect the Waikato River “while maintaining a vibrant economy”. The plan change sets the blueprint for the first 10 years of an 80-year strategy for managing the river, starting with a 10 percent improvement during the first decade.

Naturally, views differ on whether the council has the balance right.

As of March 14, it had received 1,000 submissions on the plan – the most it has ever received on a plan change.

But what does it actually mean?

For farmers, potentially quite a lot. All dairy farmers in the Waikato and Waipa catchments are affected, though the actual impact depends on where they are and how much nitrogen and other run-off is leaving their properties.

By March 2019 farmers must pick something called a Nitrogen Reference Point – a baseline estimate of how much nitrogen is leaching from their property. Farmers can choose either the 2014/15 or 2015/16 financial year as their reference point. Once the year is locked in, they will need to keep pollution levels lower than the baseline.

As well as not worsening their discharges, farms will need a plan for reducing them. Most farmers will either need to get a tailored plan under a certified industry scheme (for example one designed by DairyNZ or Beef and Lamb ) or hire a consultant to come up with an individual farm environment plan. The plans need to show where the discharge sources and waterways are, how the farm will reduce run-off and how they are going to exclude stock and keep cultivation set back from waterways.

How urgently farms need to do this depends on where they are and how much nitrogen they are discharging into water already.

If modelling shows a farm is in the top 25 percent of dischargers, it has until 2026 to get leaching down to the level of the other 75 percent of farms. These “worst 25 percent” farms need a farm environment plan by July 2020 and waterway fencing to be done by 2023, as do farms in the parts of the catchment identified as most sensitive to water pollution (regardless of leaching levels).

Other farmers who haven’t fenced their waterways will need to do so by 2026 at the latest.

Longer term, it will be harder to get permission from the council to convert forest to animal farming, or dry-stock to dairying.

The most immediate impact on farmers is they need to keep good records, so that when they call in an adviser to help calculate their nitrogen use, they have reliable data.

Okay – what do farmers think?

The Nitrogen Reference Points have caused a fair amount of grumbling. Because the plan change came after a plunge in the milk price, many farmers were feeling anxious already – and some say it’s unfair to base their discharge limits on a period when production was down. Some farmers want the NRPs scrapped and the plan withdrawn and rewritten. Others – including a farmer on the regional council – have questioned the accuracy of the tool being used to calculate nitrogen discharges, a tool called Overseer. Other farmers are comfortable with the tool.

Then there is cost. Federated Farmers say some farmers could pay nothing to comply, while others may spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on fencing and effluent system upgrades. Longer term, some farmers fear they will need to drop stocking rates to meet the new targets, and are looking for alternative ways to make money from the land without breaching pollution limits.

DairyNZ says it supports the plan as a first step. Its submission focuses on the nitty gritty of complying with the rules – for example, will there be enough skilled people to draw up the nitrogen reductions plans that many farms are going to need before the rolling deadlines? DairyNZ also wants more involvement in developing the next stage of the improvement plan and resolving what it says in uncertainty in the science behind the rule change.

Meanwhile non-dairy farmers have a more immediate problem with the plan. Horticulture New Zealand, Federated Farmers, Pukekohe Vegetable Growers Association, Waikato and Waipa branches of the New Zealand Deer Farmers’ Association, Primary Land Users Group, and Beef + Lamb are furious that part of the region has been split off into a separate consultation process.

Waikato Regional Council did not consult Hauraki iwi about the proposed plan, forcing the council to withdraw 120,000 hectares from the plan to belatedly enable consultation. That prompted calls from farmers (including vegetable growers) at the boundary of the two areas to put the main plan process on hold, so they could respond to everything at once. Farmer groups are taking legal action to stall the main plan process.

The council says it needs to keep things moving and that it will merge the two processes at the earliest possible opportunity, so that there is only one hearings and decisions process.

What happens next?

The council describes this as a “bold” response to cleaning up its water. But it remains to be seen whether most submitters agree.

We’ll know more in June, when the council should have finished summarising the first round of submissions. Then comes a round of submission-on-submissions, when people can say whether they agree with others said about the plan.

The final decision will be made by independent commissioners, who are yet to be appointed.

Their hearings process will start later this year or in early 2018 – just one to two years before farmers need to complete fencing and start nitrogen planning.