By Paul Melville, Federated Farmers Principal Advisor Water and Environment Strategy
For the last two years many farmers have appealed what they view as unworkable freshwater regulations. The chief culprits have been rules requiring resource consents for planting a winter forage crop, rules that make paddocks of weeds so-called protected wetlands, and rules that require fencing of thousands of mountain streams.
Some 11,000 farmers across New Zealand were in breach of new fertiliser cap rules because a website wasn’t ready in time for them to comply.
But farmers are not alone. The wetland rules in particular apply to the entirety of New Zealand. What has become apparent however is that, under the regulated definition of a wetland, we actually have many more ‘wetlands’ than first anticipated. With rules that make it impossible to do any earthworks within 100 metres of a wetland, and wetlands potentially on every corner, the Ministry of the Environment released proposed changes to these rules in May that would create a pathway for quarries, landfills, clean fills, urban development, mining and critical infrastructure.
You name it, we’ll exempt it. Unless it’s farming.
But just three months after opening this consultation, the Ministry has launched yet another new consultation process. This will be the 6th change to the freshwater regulations in just two years.
The latest change is again related to so-called wetlands. In regulating wetlands the government has defined a ‘natural wetland’ as anything that is: permanently or intermittently wet, supports a natural ecosystem adapted to wet conditions, and is less than 50 per cent pasture.
Federated Farmers has submitted that this definition is likely to capture a far greater area of New Zealand than the Ministry expects and that the rules will constrain many activities that may actually enhance wetlands.
Now it appears the Ministry is saying the same thing.
New Zealand’s beaches and rocky shores are also intermittently wet, support an ecosystem adapted to wet conditions, and are certainty less than fifty per cent pasture.
A recent court case, Minister of Conservation v Mangawhai Harbour Restoration Society Incorporated confirmed that, yes, the coastal zone is included in the wetland rules.
This appears to mean that earthworks or land disturbance on the beach is now a prohibited activity as it would be occurring in a so-called wetland. Is it now illegal to build a sandcastle in New Zealand?
The regulations require that, before weeds can be cleared or structures like maimai are repaired there is a requirement to write to the Regional Council 10 days prior with a map and a plan for the activity. Building a new wetland structure requires a resource consent.
Is putting a gazebo up on the beach now an illegal wetland structure? It would seem so.
Thankfully, the government is set to amend the rules to exempt the coastal zone. But this speaks to a broader issue that farmers have been pointing out over the last two years: highly prescriptive freshwater rules that apply a single national approach are making farming a compliance nightmare.
The freshwater rules have been in place for less than two years but have already been amended four times. A further two changes, mentioned above, are currently out for consultation.
Poorly understood rules are also making it a lottery when it comes to who is and isn’t held to the letter of the law. Federated Farmers has been contacted by landowners who have been given cease orders for digging drains too close to paddocks of rushes, for undertaking earthworks in what is seemingly a paddock of buttercup, and taken to court for clearing gorse too close to a wetland.
These rules have, after all, been in force since September 2020. Anyone who took the kids the beach over the last two summers has most likely been unknowingly in breach of ‘freshwater’ regulations.
While we can all probably see the funny side of a government that would accidently make it illegal to build a sandcastle, these rules have real implications for farming families.
Families that have saved hard for decades, set an alarm clock for 5am day after day, year after year, to build the savings up to buy a farm. These families look at unworkable rules and worry a lifetime of work is disappearing. This causes real mental health strain and stress for rural families.
Families that won’t invest in new capital because the future is so uncertain. New Zealand’s biggest export sector doesn’t grow at a time when returns are good, and the country is in desperate need of an economic boost.
Rest assured that by the time you next go to the beach it will probably be once again legal to build a sandcastle, but spare a thought for the farming families who are still navigating rushed and unworkable rules.