Did we learn nothing from the Essential Freshwaters debacle, and the pitfalls of one-size-fits-all rules on resource protection? It would seem not if proposed amendments to the Resource Management (National Environmental Standards for Sources of Human Drinking Water) Regulations 2007 – NES-DW for short – are an indication.
Federated Farmers Senior Policy Advisor Mike Campbell says Feds is in favour of safe and secure drinking water for all, and acknowledges that some agricultural activities can pose a risk to drinking water supply. But the NES-DW proposed changes are over the top, given the risk posed.
“It seems like the Havelock North contamination incident – serious as it was – has been used as justification for taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
Mike points out there’s a raft of regulation already in place, or in the pipeline, that restrict activities near water. Rather than national rules, regional councils are well placed to tailor restrictions on the basis of the risk posed to the drinking water source in consultation with their respective community.
“A number of councils already have in place exclusion zones around drinking water sources that manage the effects of activities aimed at preventing contamination of drinking water sources.
“The point of a national direction under the RMA is to set a bottom line, but bottom lines proposed are too restrictive. If you look at an area in, say, Northland it’s likely to be utterly different to an area in Southland in terms of geography, soil types and other sorts of landscape features. And so there needs to be some ability to tailor rules according to local risk factors.”
Mike and Lilly Lawson, Environment Policy Analyst with Beef + Lamb NZ, co-authored a joint Feds/B+LNZ submission on the Ministry for the Environment’s NES-DW consultation document.
The submission says regional councils are best placed to determine (a) what the risk to each drinking water source is and (b) what the commensurate restrictions should be, as managing activities around drinking water sources involves setting up restrictions on future land uses and negotiating changes to current land use practices based on changing information about water quality.
The risk of contamination to an on-farm drinking water source can be managed through freshwater farm plans. FWFPs can empower farmers to take the necessary measures to ensure contaminants do not enter drinking water sources.
“Farmers are best placed to determine what restrictions are necessary on their farm to prevent contaminants entering their water supplies and utilising farm plans can upskill farmers in the risks to drinking water sources. These things in turn increase farmer buy in,” the joint submission says.
Another factor that determines the risk of contamination to drinking water sources is existing regulation. The NES-Freshwater restricts a number of farming practices in the vicinity of water. The NPS-Freshwater Management places drinking water second only to the health and well-being of the water body itself, which is a strong direction to regional councils to protect drinking water sources.
“This complex mosaic of freshwater regulations means there will little if any risk left for the NES-DW to address.”
Just one of the concerns of Federated Farmers and B+LNZ is the impact the proposed new regulations would have on farmers’ ability to use agrichemicals.
The new Water Services Act requires all drinking-water suppliers other than domestic self-suppliers to register with Taumata Arowai and prepare Source Water Risk Management Plans (SWRMP) to identify, manage and monitor risks to source water. Regional councils are required to contribute information to SWRMP, annually publish information about source water quality and quantity, and report to Taumata Arowai.
The methodology for mapping source water risk management areas (SWRMAs) for different types of water bodies (rivers, lakes and aquifers) is based on the time it takes for contaminants to travel to a source water intake and the level of filtration or mixing before reaching the intake.
But these factors will vary between waterbodies. The volume of water in the 20m wide river will be far in excess of the volume of water in 2m wide river, therefore, contaminant concentration from a point discharge 500m upstream of a drinking water source in the former river will be less than in the latter.
“This illustrates a blanket approach to the dimensions of SWRMAs is problematic,” the Feds/B+LNZ submission says.
“For example, applying SWRMA 2 to all drinking water sources along the Clutha River would result in a 100m riparian margin alongside the main stem of the Clutha River and all its tributaries. The Clutha River has an average flow rate of 614 cubic metres per second which, conservatively, means water will travel 50km in 8 hours. Applying that distance upstream of all consented water takes for drinking water results in the entire river and its tributaries being subject to a 100m riparian margin.
“Applying restrictions in this area as a blanket methodology will severely hamper farming for no demonstrated benefit.”
Application of agrichemicals is fundamental to managing pests in a farm system and requiring a resource consent for their application will severely affect productivity.
First up, there is no evidence to suggest that applying agrichemicals within the proposed SWRMA 2 poses a risk to drinking water sources, the submissions says. Regardless, the Cost Benefit Analysis included in the MfE consultation document assumes farmers will apply for a resource consent at a cost of at least $10,000-30,000.
“The more likely outcome of this cost is farmers will elect not to spray for pests, which will effectively remove land from production.
“Moreover, it is unclear what effects on a drinking water source this restriction would manage at the upper extent of the geographic boundaries of SWRMA 2. If the application of agrichemicals outside of the immediate vicinity of a drinking water source pose a risk of contamination, that risk should be managed at the regional level through a permitted activity status with conditions rather than requiring a resource consent.”
The two ag bodies said they strongly opposed any blanket restrictions within the geographic boundaries of SWRMA2 on: (a) the discharge of agrichemicals; (b) cultivation; and (c) earthworks for fencing (e.g. digging post holes).
“These activities are fundamental to the running of a farm and restricting them within the geographic boundaries of SWRMA 2 would have serious negative effects on farming.”
It would be impossible to capture in a blanket methodology all the factors – soil type, depth of aquifer, surface aggregate over the aquifer, vegetation (e.g. riparian planting), soil type and oxygen levels in the water – that could determine risk.
“Instead, a bespoke approach to determining the area that needs protecting around each drinking water source should be favoured. In rural areas, this could be achieved through freshwater farm plans or bespoke exclusion zones contained in regional plans,” the Feds/B+LNZ submission said.
While submissions on the NES-Drinking Water closed in late March, the Ministry for the Environment’s timetable for next steps is unclear. Given the backtracking that ensued when it became clear aspects of the rushed Essential Freshwaters regulations were simply unworkable, Feds and Beef + Lamb are urging MfE to release and consult on an exposure draft prior to enacting any changes to the NES-DW.
What about small rural water suppliers?
Federated Farmers and Beef + Lamb NZ argue that the risk of contamination of source water takes for small rural suppliers (i.e. takes that are used to service 50 or fewer people in the rural area) is sufficiently low to warrant excluding them from any changes to the NES-Drinking Water.
Firstly, the two organisations say they’re unaware of evidence to suggest there is an issue with source water for small rural suppliers that needs to be addressed at the national level.
“Moreover, the acceptable solutions and the requirement for a drinking water safety plan to prevent hazards from entering the raw water provided for under the Water Services Act 2020 means any contaminants that could enter the system will be eliminated prior to consumption.
“Ultimately, water from these drinking water sources is likely to be consumed by the land user (farmer) who will have a vested interest in ensuring contaminants do not enter the source and it is likely more cost effective to treat any contaminant in these water supplies than it is to restrict activities in the vicinity of these drinking water sources.”
And a ‘one size fits all approach’ to the application of exclusion zones in rural areas will unnecessarily burden regional councils to undertake actions that are not commensurate to risk. The proposed changes mean there are potentially a large number of drinking water sources that will need to be included in the regional plan.
“While it is proposed to allow regional councils to impose the default source water risk management areas without using the Schedule 1 process, this is still a significant burden,” the joint submission says.
Cost benefit analysis underpinning proposals flawed
Federated Farmers and Beef + Lamb NZ argue there are deficiencies in the cost benefit analysis underpinning the NES-Drinking Water proposals that minimise the impact the changes would have on rural communities.
The joint submission says the cost benefit analysis:
(a) focuses too much on the cost of the restrictions (e.g. how much it would cost to obtain resource consent) and fails to consider the opportunity costs to resource users (i.e. farmers) of the restrictions the proposed changes will impose;
(b) fails to consider any restrictions on earthworks in Source Water Risk Management Area 2 and the costs, both in terms of monetary outlay and opportunity cost, to farmers. Earthworks, such as fence post installation and cultivation, are fundamental to the operation of a farm system;
(c) repeatedly makes the flawed assumption that farmers would apply for resource consent to apply agrichemicals within SWRMA2. The assumed cost of a “low complexity” resource consent for this activity ($10,000-30,000) would be prohibitive of undertaking this activity, meaning there will likely be riparian margins and extensive areas around bores that become overrun with weeds and other pests rendering them unusable for farming;
(d) fails to consider the impact of regional plans implementing the NPS-Freshwater Management. The Cost Benefit Analysis undertakes a comparison of the proposed changes to the NES-DW with existing regional plans, however, given the NPS-FM contains a strong direction to protection drinking water sources, it is likely regional councils will amend their plans rendering this analysis obsolete;
(e) masks the extent of the work needed to map SWRMA2 areas and the costs associated with that work; and
(f) is not representative of rural communities, given three of the five case studies are located in the Waikato, another three of the five case studies focus on bores, there are no case studies on drinking water supplies from lakes, and the focus of the analysis is on restrictions to the drinking water supplier with little comment made on the cost of the restrictions on neighbouring properties/resource users.