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Our rivers, lakes, and wetlands will have better protection from new freshwater rules, but a few key omissions leave it to chance whether our freshwater can be brought back from the brink.

A simple national bottom line for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is missing from the freshwater reform package announced today. 

"There are some really good things this reform package achieves for freshwater in Aotearoa, but what's missing leaves our freshwater at risk," says Forest & Bird Chief Executive Kevin Hague.

"The scale of the damage to freshwater means we do not have the time to use proxy measures, or go only part-way to implementing the advice of scientific experts."

A Ministry for the Environment report on the state of freshwater this year showed between 95% and 99% of rivers in urban, pastoral, and non-native forest areas are polluted; 90% of wetlands have been drained and destroyed; and 76% of our native freshwater fish are heading towards extinction.


"It’s vital that a national limit for nitrogen pollution in our rivers is set. Most freshwater scientists believe it should be there. The proxies and measures in the reforms leave too much to chance," says Mr Hague.

"Farmers and other industries can comply with the new standards required, most farmers already do. We need to work together and listen to the advice of scientific experts to make sure the freshwater we rely on is safe and healthy for future generations."

Here's what's good, and what isn't good enough, in the freshwater reforms announced today:

Gains for freshwater:

  • An enhanced focus on ecosystem health
  • Strengthening the status and clarity of 'Te Mana o te Wai'
  • Limits on wetland and river/stream loss  
  • Stock exclusion 
  • Limits on intensification
  • Fertiliser cap (albeit quite high at 190kgN/ha/year - note average dairy use in Canterbury is 222kg, average dairy use across New Zealand is 150kg)
  • Bottom lines for macroinvertebrates, submerged plants in lakes, and dissolved oxygen
  • Bottom lines for suspended sediment and deposited sediment

What leaves freshwater at risk:

  • DIN (nitrogen) bottom line of 1.0 mg/l missing
  • Managing nitrogen with proxies (toxicity, periphyton) is flawed because we know that hasn't worked to date
  • DRP (phosphorus) has no bottom line and will only be managed through non-statutory action plans (i.e. no rules)
  • Reliance on non-statutory action plans for many important attributes is flawed - this relies on regional councils and will take a long time to create change, if at all
  • Fish attributes have no bottom lines
  • Exceptions for horticulture and vegetable growing (a heavy fertiliser user) throughout the legislation
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