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Not feasible … Having rules forcing farmers to install fences to exclude stock from all hill country waterways is impractical, cost prohibitive and environmentally irresponsible, Jamie McFadden says. Photo: Supplied

By JAMIE MCFADDEN, chairman of the Rural Advocacy Network

Some farming leaders and commentators are premature in celebrating changes to the freshwater legislation.

They have focused on how much was changed from the original proposal, rather than an objective assessment of the final legislation necessary, effective, workable and at what cost.

The Government has released its intentions of what the final freshwater legislation will look like. However, as we know in Canterbury, the intentions, and what is actually drafted, can be very different.

Once the Government’s freshwater legislation is finalised, it sets the minimum requirement for all councils, which can choose to go stricter.

In Canterbury, we will not know what the final rules will be until our regional council has redone its plans to meet the new legislation.

Given Environment Canterbury’s recent history of being one of New Zealand’s most draconian regional councils, it is likely that many of the rules will be stricter than the national baseline.

Stock exclusion in waterways is one example. While the national minimum will not require waterway fencing in much of our hill country, ECan’s rules are much stricter and require any stock that cause pugging, discolouration of water or de-vegetation to be fenced out of waterways.

This includes hill and high country and intermittently flowing waterways. ECan’s stricter rules take precedence.

Looking at the changes to the original freshwater proposal, the proposed bottom lines for Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen (DIN) and Dissolved Reactive Phosphorus (DRP) have been parked aside for debate another day.

However, nitrate toxicity attributes and bottom lines have been strengthened and a cap of 190 kg/n/ha/year applied to pastoral farming, but arable and horticulture are exempt.

Fencing of waterways has changed from an average of 5 metres to a minimum of 3 metres and existing fences will not have to be shifted.

However, like the fencing of wetlands, there is no recognition of the additional management challenges and unintended consequences, particularly relating to the spread of weeds. There are a range of rules to be drafted relating to winter forage crops, change of land use, wetlands and stock exclusion.

One of the more contentious requirements is for all farmers to have mandatory audited Freshwater Farm Environment Plans (FEP). This issue was recently debated in Hurunui’s Plan Change 1 process, with widespread opposition among dryland farmers to audited farm plans.

One of the main arguments from farmers is that auditing is unjustified for a permitted activity (dryland farming) that has been shown to have an insignificant impact on water quality or in areas where there are no proven freshwater issues.

There is increasing frustration among irrigated farmers to ECan’s prescriptive FEP approach that fails to empower farmers with a practical integrated environmental management approach tailored to their farm and specific river catchment issues.

The Government’s one-size-fits-all FEP approach will similarly fail.

We continue to advocate for farm planning, like the Catchment Board approach that was embraced by farmers and focused on environmental actions rather than a tick-box process.

In the last seven years Canterbury has been through intense, drawn out freshwater planning processes costing millions of dollars.

The Government’s new freshwater legislation means we will have to go through it all again.

We argued that the extent of the new law was unnecessary as we already had legislation that required councils to set contaminant limits catchment by catchment, but the problem in Canterbury is that ECan has failed to follow this practical approach to addressing water quality issues.

The Rural Advocacy Network will continue to advocate for the overhaul and streamlining of our environmental laws and promote solutions that focus actions and resources to where they are most needed.