Part 10: Approaches to non-regulatory initiatives

Managing Freshwater quality: Challenges and opportunities.

In this Part, we discuss:

Summary of findings

All four regional councils are committed to using non-regulatory programmes to manage the effect of land use on freshwater quality.

Each of the four regional councils considered whether it can work effectively with farming industry groups where they have common objectives in promoting more sustainable land-use practices and behaviours. There are opportunities to work effectively with these groups in ways that still maintain a regional council's independence.

We were generally satisfied with the way the four regional councils integrated their regulatory and non-regulatory programmes.

Non-regulatory initiatives

Regional councils use a range of non-regulatory initiatives to help manage the effects of land use on freshwater quality. Non-regulatory initiatives include on-the-ground interventions such as riparian planting, hill country erosion control, wetland protection and enhancement, and invasive plant species control.

The four regional councils have made significant investments in on-the-ground interventions to improve, protect, and improve freshwater quality. These initiatives provide councils with opportunities to work with farmers, industry, territorial authorities, and their wider communities to achieve positive environmental outcomes.

Non-regulatory initiatives can also include software tools that aid in the farming activities that can affect freshwater quality. One example of this is a dairy effluent storage calculator developed by the Horizons Regional Council and Massey University. The calculator determines the effluent storage requirements of individual farms.

Regional councils can work with farmers to prepare plans that support more sustainable practices on their farms. These plans are prepared for their specific farming operations and are designed to educate farmers and help them follow good environmental management practices.

Farm environment plans can also include using "nutrient budget models". A nutrient budget model estimates the amount of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) that are lost on a farm in any given year. The model takes into account variables such as soil type, how the land is used, rainfall, and fertilisers, and calculates nutrient inputs and outputs.43 Nutrient budget models can encourage farmers to consider lost nutrients as a loss of resource for the farm and as a potential contributor to freshwater quality degradation.44

The four regional councils run programmes to work with farmers to promote land-use sustainability. Some of the current programmes are outlined below.

Taranaki Regional Council's riparian management programme

Riparian protection and restoration is a proven method for reducing stress on waterways because riparian strips can trap sediment and prevent nutrients from getting into water.45 The Council has run and strongly promoted the programme since 1996.

As of June 2018, 99.5% of dairy farms in the region have riparian management plans. Plan-holders have fenced 85.7% of their stream banks and protected 71.7% of stream banks with riparian vegetation. The Council has provided 5.1 million plants to landowners under the scheme. The Council is aiming to nearly complete the riparian management programme by 2020.

A March 2018 report by NIWA found that "the landscape-scale riparian restoration programme" in the Taranaki has "had a beneficial effect on water quality and downstream aquatic invertebrate communities". The report noted a positive relationship between several invertebrate metrics, including MCI (see Part 4), and restoration activities. It also found an association between restoration and decreased E. coli (a measure of swimmability).

Horizons Regional Council's Sustainable Land Use Initiative

The Horizons region has a high percentage of hill country at risk of erosion. The Sustainable Land Use Initiative prepares "Whole Farm Plans" with farmers and takes a "mountains to sea" approach to keep hill country soils on the hills and out of waterways.

Horizons Regional Council has invested in a nursery to meet demand for its hill country erosion prevention efforts. Independent evaluation of the Initiative concluded that "there is a strong perception by farmers … that it has made a major impact on environmental and economic sustainability".

Farmers and farming industry representatives we spoke to agreed that hill country programmes and separate support for riparian planting are both working well and are based on good relationships between farmers and the Council.

A February 2018 report by Land Water People Ltd found weak but statistically significant and positive associations between improving trends for water quality and the adoption of the Initiative. It also found significant associations between improving water quality and the Council's other initiatives, such as riparian planting and fencing.

Waikato Regional Council's sustainable agriculture advisors

Waikato Regional Council employed a team of sustainable agriculture advisors who work with farmers, researchers, and the agricultural industry to put in place solutions to ensure long-term sustainable farming. Their work includes facilitating events with farmers to encourage best environmental practice on farms. In 2016, an independent evaluation of the events found that they were effective in encouraging farmers to implement positive changes.

Waikato Regional Council's website has a page for farmers that includes links to freshwater quality events, publications, guides, manuals, and factsheets. It uses its website to promote guidance and assistance provided by the farming industry, such as DairyNZ's sustainable milk plans.

The Council has also worked with the farming industry to prepare a website that provides information and guidance on practices to improve nutrient management and reduce adverse effects on freshwater quality.

Environment Southland's Land Sustainability Officers

Environment Southland has a team of Land Sustainability Officers who work with urban and rural land users. They provide advice and education to farmers on more sustainable land management practices, including management of riparian areas, effluent, drainage, and intensive winter grazing.

The Land Sustainability Officers help farmers write and commit to farm environment plans (called "Focus Activity Farm Plans") and give advice about the direct economic benefits of more sustainable practices. Farmers and farming industry group representatives we spoke to praised the quality of the advice the officers gave.

We saw this work in action, including when we discussed the valued role they play in supporting farmer-led catchment groups looking to influence and support improved practices in their local community.

We are encouraged by the efforts that the four regional councils are making to work with farmers towards more sustainable land use. We urge all four councils to continue these efforts and look for opportunities to improve the programmes.

Supporting farming industry efforts while maintaining independence

It is important for regional councils to maintain their independence and ensure that their dealings with the farming industry are transparent. However, this should not preclude councils from supporting efforts by the farming industry to promote sustainable land use. There is room for regional councils to work with farming industry groups to find common ground on sustainable land-use practices while maintaining their independence.

Since 2011, many farming industry groups have increased their commitment to sustainable farming practices. Given the effect primary production has on freshwater quality, regional councils could usefully support industry-led efforts that improve the sustainability of farming practices.

How the regional councils worked with the dairy industry on industry-led sustainability programmes varied. The most difference was in the approaches of Taranaki Regional Council and Waikato Regional Council.

Taranaki Regional Council's focus is on working with farmers in the region day to day, including on its flagship riparian management programme. Individual farmers we spoke to were complimentary about how the Council works with them.

However, when we did our audit, we were concerned that Taranaki Regional Council was not taking advantage of opportunities to leverage environmental gains from industry-led sustainability programmes. Some farming representatives considered that the Council did not actively or visibly support farming industry efforts to increase land-use sustainability education and implementation.

We respect Taranaki Regional Council's right to protect its independence and integrity. Independence is a critical requirement for remaining an effective regulator. However, in our view, there were opportunities for Taranaki Regional Council to take advantage of industry-led investments and initiatives while maintaining its independence.

The Council has since taken advantage of some of these opportunities. Most notably, the Council has developed the "Land and Farm Hub" internet site. The site provides farmers with access to industry-developed best practice advice on topics such as nutrient management, effluent management, and the protection of waterways.

The site also provides access to council-recommended and industry-developed farm plans for the dairy, meat, and horticultural sectors, and links to industry-based help for completing the plans. We view this as a positive development.

Waikato Regional Council's approach includes taking advantage of farming industry-led work. For example, one of the main aspects of Waikato's Wai Ora proposal for the Waikato-Waipa catchment is to work closely with the primary production sector on Certified Industry Schemes. These schemes would see private sector organisations certified to monitor their members against the policy objectives of Wai Ora.

If viable, the Council would not need to do its own on-site compliance monitoring of certain farming activities, which an industry body would do instead. Waikato Regional Council proposes to audit every provider at least once a year and to investigate setting up an independent third-party assurance system for the monitoring.

Although we support regional councils finding new and more-effective ways of increasing land-use sustainability practices and achieving compliance with land-use rules and conditions, there are risks involved in implementing the Certified Industry Schemes. We expect Waikato Regional Council to understand and manage those risks.

For example, if the Certified Industry Schemes are adopted, Waikato Regional Council needs to ensure that the development and implementation of schemes is transparent to the wider community. Waikato Regional Council also needs to retain overall control of compliance monitoring in its region. To do this, Waikato Regional Council will need effective audit oversight over the implementation and results of those programmes.

We encourage the four regional councils to work with other relevant parties, including farming industry groups, to identify, support, and align activities that lead to sustainable land-use practices and better freshwater outcomes.

We expect that, in doing so, councils will retain the appropriate level of independence necessary to ensure continued credibility as environmental regulators. We also expect that, in working together to find common ground, all parties mitigate the risk of farmers getting conflicting messages that could undermine the promotion of sustainable land-use practices.

Integrating regulatory and non-regulatory programmes

We were satisfied with how the four regional councils integrated their regulatory and non-regulatory programmes.

A well-integrated customer-centric approach is more efficient for the council and land users, ensuring that they receive a consistent message from the different interactions they have with council staff. The importance of these approaches being complementary is evident when considering the different roles regional councils play in full view of farmers.

In one role, they are a firm regulator and guardian of the rules and conditions that land users must follow. The other role is as a supportive educator that influences more sustainable land-use practices.

43: Gluckman, P (2017), New Zealand's fresh waters: Values, state, trends and human impacts, Wellington, at, page xxxiii.

44: Gluckman, P (2017), New Zealand's fresh waters: Values, state, trends and human impacts, Wellington, at, page xxxiii.

45: Gluckman, P (2017), New Zealand's fresh waters: Values, state, trends and human impacts, Wellington, at, p xiv; Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (2016), The state of New Zealand's environment: Commentary by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on Environment Aotearoa 2015, at, page 54.