6. The end of the Land and Water forum

Polluted water in Puhoi River. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

A nine-year exercise in experimental consensus-building among habitual combatants, the Land and Water Forum, is putting itself "into abeyance" and calling for the creation of a new government agency, a Land and Water Commission, to "provide national direction and oversight" it says is required to bring urgency to cleaning up New Zealand's freshwater bodies. Pattrick Smellie reports.

A recommendation in its final and fifth report since 2009 has been accorded immediate priority by Environment and Primary Industries Ministers David Parker and Damien O'Connor, who said efforts to properly pool poorly shared information on freshwater catchments at a national level would begin immediately.

"We welcome the recommendation to identify 'at-risk' catchments, ensure plans are in place for those catchments and take action where necessary," they said. While regional councils held a lot of information, "there is no national picture", the ministers said.

"The joint Ministry for the Environment/Ministry of Primary Industries Water Directorate will work with regional councils to pull this information together."

The Environmental Defence Society, which was present at LAWF's birth as a creature of former Environment Minister Nick Smith's attempts to cut through competing interests in the long-vexed management of freshwater, said the report's "most important recommendation" was the establishment of a Land and Water Commission to "provide national direction and oversight".

"There is also a critical role for the Ministry for the Environment, with the Forum recommending the use of prohibited activity status or moratoria to 'stop the rot' in catchments where water quality is dire and councils aren't acting fast enough," EDS chief executive Gary Taylor said in a statement.

He said the report left unaddressed "consents for intensification", which matter because "in most catchments consent for both existing and new intensive land uses impacting fresh water will be required".

"Without this, it is extremely difficult for councils to account for and control the amount of contaminants entering waterways."

Parker noted that "the Forum was unable to reach agreement on the allocation of nutrient discharge rights in polluted catchments".

A spokesman for Parker's office said that meant "now it's in the government's court to regulate".

In its first report to the new coalition government, LAWF recommended consideration of regulating to enforce Good Farming Practice standards, which currently operate as guidelines.

"The government is already working with both urban and rural stakeholders on good management practices, and will consider the Forum's recommendations," O'Connor said.