The Otago Regional Council (ORC) voted today to prepare a plan change extending deadlines on incoming water quality rules while its approach to achieving greater water quality improvement for Otago is strengthened and aligned to central government expectations.
Some provisions of the rural water quality rules—known as “Plan Change 6A”—were due to take effect on April 1, 2020. They relate to contaminant thresholds in water discharges and a nitrogen leaching limit as calculated by Overseer. An upcoming plan change will extend the deadline on those two rules. The rest of the rules relating to 6A that have already been in place since 2014 are robust and fit for purpose in the short term, but will be part of considerations when ORC undertakes its Water Plan Review.
The proposal approved today includes two upcoming plan changes.
- The first, to be notified this October, will extend the 2020 deadline to 2023. This will be a very minor change, to prepare the ground for subsequent updates.
- The second plan change, to be notified in March next year, will strengthen and align water quality regulation by ORC with central government expectations and policy. ORC will be consulting with the rural community and industry groups about this change.
ORC Chief Executive Sarah Gardner said the changes would lead to the best outcomes for water quality.
“Improving water quality across Otago is a critical issue, and we’re committed to setting the best regional rules to achieve that.
“The prohibited activity rules in the current Water Plan will remain unchanged because, as our recent prosecution demonstrates, they are robust and enforceable. Along with education and encouraging good practice, enforcing these rules remains a key priority for the ORC. Not complying with these rules is representative of negligence that will not be tolerated.
“This move is by no means doing away with 6A, it’s about recognising issues in implementing some aspects of the rules that are due to come into force next year, and taking the time to address those issues with up to date tools and frameworks to support improvements in water quality,” Mrs Gardner said.
The proposed changes to the Water Plan will strengthen ORC’s water quality framework and may include requirements for Farm Environment Plans, rules around stock exclusion and dairy effluent pond storage specification.
“We know that there has been uncertainty and anxiety around the rules due for April next year. Making these changes is going to provide a lot more certainty for the community, and it will mean we can implement rules which are more robust and enforceable, which are clearer and more consistent, and which align with the policy direction we see coming from central government.”
“National approaches to regulation and management of water quality, in particular the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, have moved away from the physio-chemical approach that underpinned Plan Change 6A.”
In terms of advice for the community, Mrs Gardner said they should be aware that current enforcement activity would not be affected, and they should continue the good work being done to improve environmental management practices.
“We know the farming community has made huge efforts towards good practice and improving water quality and we encourage them to keep this up. For those letting their farming peers down, your negligence will not be tolerated, and we will enforce the robust parts of 6A as necessary”
What is the problem?
Since Plan Change 6A was notified in 2014, national approaches to regulation and management of water quality have moved away from the physio-chemical approach that underpinned it. And, when viewed through a compliance lens, some aspects of 6A related to permitted activity rules are not workable.
We expect that the resulting uncertainty for land owners may incentivise them to make consent applications, which are likely to be costly and time consuming, and which could get in the way of implementing more effective water quality rules.
Which provisions of 6A are problematic, and how?
12.C.1.1A – Rule 12.C.1.1A sets maximum discharge contaminant concentration for rural discharges. The sampling of those discharges is challenging in practice, and there are uncertainties over where discharges have been sampled. This has created significant uncertainties for farms.
12.C.1.3 Overseer – The rule sets nitrogen leaching limits, based on Overseer estimates. It does not specify whether the limit apply to a 3- or 5-year average; and it does not address how Overseer version changes will be addressed.
What is the council going to do?
Council today adopted a staff proposal for a three-step approach to resolving issues with 6A and completing its Water Plan review.
- In October 2019, we will notify a plan change to extend the deadline for the rules that relate to contaminant thresholds in water discharges and the Overseer nitrogen leaching limit that would otherwise have taken effect on 1 April. This will prepare the ground for subsequent changes.
- In March 2020, we will notify a second plan change which will establish strong, clear, enforceable rules. We’ll be consulting with the rural community and industry groups about this change.
- A staged notification of Freshwater Management Unit (FMU) plan changes, starting with Arrow, Cardrona (March 2020) and Manuherekia (August 2020). Other FMU-based area plan changes will follow over the next five years, with a revised Water Plan notified in 2025.
What does this mean for rural water users right now?
At its simplest, it means farmers will not need to apply for consents if they cannot meet the requirements of 6A that commence in the Plan on 1 April 2020. This requirement will be pushed out to 2023 and ultimately taken over by the second plan change proposed.
We know that many rural land users are following good practice when it comes to water quality, such as keeping stock out of waterways, providing buffer zones alongside waterways, and planting riparian edges. We encourage land users to maintain and build on those good management practices.
What about rules from central government?
Central government policy changes will be accommodated in either stage 2 or 3 depending on when they come into force.
What about urban water quality?
ORC recognise that urban water quality is also an issue in some places. One of the changes proposed to strengthen ORC’s water quality framework will introduce stricter rules around sediment run-off and disturbance on building sites and new developments such as housing areas or industrial parks. We cannot ignore the increasing pressure such developments are putting on waterways as a result of sediment discharges.