Government’s Fresh Water Reforms – a Mixed Bag

It’s a mixed bag. Most welcome is that here will be a cap on the input of nitrogen fertiliser to farms although the limit set is weak.  Farmers will have to fence off waterways and adopt targeted farm environment plans.  There will be a streamlined planning process and specialist freshwater panels that include Regional Council and tangata whenua appointees.

The Ministry for the Environment’s Cost Benefit Analysis concludes that benefits from the reforms will exceed the costs by $3.7 billion. This is when a value is attached for example to being able to swim in a river without getting sick or not having wetlands lost to intensive dairying.

Benefits and Costs MfE May 2020


85 % of the waterways in pasture catchments which make up half of the country’s waterways measured by length, now exceed current nitrate limits.

modelled river quality in pastoral and native land catchments

If too much nitrogen enters waterways by leaching through the soil algae can grow in large amounts. This triggers a cascade of problems and fuels toxic blooms, such as we saw on the Hauraki Plains this summer when thousands of fish and birds were killed.

drains H Plains

25% of nitrate – nitrogen leaching by livestock in New Zealand is in the Waikato, so it is a huge problem in our region. drinking water contamination nitrates and ecoli Waikato

So, it was a big disappointment that central government has ignored the majority of scientific advice (14 out of 19 on the advisory panel) who recommended the introduction of a measurable limits on nitrogen of 1mg/l to protect the ecology of our waterways and human health.

Public health medical professionals strongly supported a low measurable limit for nitrogen pollution because of concerns for drinking water quality and human health especially around the link to bowel cancer which is disproportionately high in parts of New Zealand with elevated nitrate levels.

nitrate nitrogen leached from dairy cattle 2017

Our dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is unsustainable, and it is adding to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas footprint through nitrous oxide emissions. Many farmers have shown they can make good profit by reducing their use of artificial fertilisers and by adopting regenerative agriculture methods.

In a recent survey 80% of New Zealanders expressed concern about the declining state of our rivers, lakes, and wetlands.  So there will be a lot of disappointment that the government has kicked the nitrogen pollution problem to touch for 12 months for a further review.

farming main cause

To protect the health of our waterways and human health ultimately the science must prevail, just as it has done so successfully in our health response to the Covid 19 crisis.

Read Charlie Mitchell’s excellent report on how the majority expert science on nitrogen and waterways was not taken up in the reforms (at the insistence of New Zealand First)