Decisions on freshwater regulations have been released.

Cabinet has made decisions on the policies for freshwater reforms, after considering 17,500 submissions made last year on the Essential Freshwater Proposals.

“Well done,” if you made a submission. You collectively made an impression on the government as many of the original proposals were changed to reflect the themes coming through in the submissions.

“An improvement, although far from ideal,” according to a Federated Farmers press release of 28 May 2020 on the Cabinet decision.

So, what was the outcome? What did cabinet decide after considering the submissions made, and taking further independent advice on the freshwater proposals?

Federated Farmers has done some work highlighting what is good about the cabinet decisions and what is not good, contained in a press release the day the decisions were announced.

Federated Farmers pointed out that the specific regulations have not been finalised as they still have to be drafted. They, and the other farmers organisations, will be working with government to try and improve the outcomes for farmers between now and the final draft.

One result that struck me (an interested bystander) is the acceptance by government that a ‘one size fits all’ approach was not the way to proceed in all cases. Instead, there is now room for regional and catchment variation in some of the regulations. While the proposals are significantly more rigid than the existing national freshwater policy, there is allowance for some local variation compared to what was initially proposed. This approach better recognises the impact different soil types, contours and existing pollution from region to region and catchment to catchment has on freshwater.

Not perfect, but a pragmatic win for farmers and their supporting organisations there.

Information sheets on the decisions

The Ministry for the Environment has published a series of information sheets for different primary sectors. These fact sheets provide a summary of the implications for each of these sectors.

  • For sheep, deer and beef farmers see Here
  • For dairy farmers see Here
  • For horticultural growers see Here
  • Support & advice for farmers & communities see Here

Summarising from the Federated Farmers release of 28 May 2020 -

Improved – but still issues
Proposed bottom lines for Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen (DIN) and Dissolved Reactive Phosphorous (DRP)

The proposed new bottom lines for DIN and DRP have been removed, however, they are still to be reviewed and may still prove an issue.

  • The existing measures for in-stream nitrate toxicity have been tightened. In layman’s terms, nitrate toxicity is the nitrate concentration at which some fish species will be negatively affected. The higher the number, the smaller number of species it will have any effect on.
  • Under the proposed change, where in-stream nitrogen levels are too high, farmers will have to continue to reduce nitrogen loss over coming decades to reduce levels, although councils will be able to tailor regulations to each catchment.
  • Further analysis of this point will be required to work out the impact of this change around the country. Also, the monitoring of the Macroinvertebrate Community Index has also been increased.

Stock exclusion

Based on the initial information, minimum setbacks for new fences have been set at 3 meters, a reduction from the 5 meters (on average) initially proposed, and stock exclusion deadlines have been pushed out by at least two years.

  • Importantly, existing permanent fences that keep livestock out of waterways will not have to be moved.
  • In the hill country, requirements are said to only apply to wetlands identified within a council plan, dairy cattle, pigs, and areas where there is intensive grazing of cattle and deer (rather than areas with a high carrying capacity).
  • Until 2023, the requirement to exclude stock from wetlands has been restricted to those wetlands identified within a regional or district plan, and applies to cattle, deer and pigs. Wetlands subsequently identified using the criteria of these regulations will need to have stock excluded by 2025.
  • Exclusion regulations will not apply to smaller streams (less than 1m wide), or to sheep, or lower-intensity hill country farming (which is proposed to be managed via Farm Environment Plans into the future). It will also not apply where stock exclusion is impractical due to the physical characteristics of the land, or where there are natural barriers keeping stock out of waterways.
  • Timeframes for these requirements have been increased, to 1 July 2023 or 1 July 2025 depending on the stock type, activities, and location.

Minor amendments, impact dependent on detail
Stock holding pads

Stock holding pads that do not meet the following criteria will require a consent from the winter of 2021:

  • The permeability of the base area is managed so that it is sealed to a minimum permeability standard of 10-9 meters per second.
  • Effluent is collected, stored, and disposed of in accordance with regional council regulations or a current discharge permit
  • The stock-holding area is situated at least 50 m away from waterbodies, water abstraction bores, drainage ditches and coastal marine areas.

A welcome change is that the regulations do not apply to:

  • Wintering barns
  • Sacrifice paddocks
  • Areas used for animal husbandry purposes such as stockyards, milking sheds or woolsheds
  • Calf-raising – the regulations only apply to areas holding cattle older than four months and above 120 kilograms in weight.

Water usage Report

If you have an existing resource consent to take more than five litres/second of water (for example, for irrigation) you will need to measure and report your use electronically, if you do not already. Compliance deadlines are within:

  • Two years if your consent is to take more than 20 litres per second
  • Four years for consents to take between 10 and 20 litres per second
  • Six years for consents to take five litres/second or more, but less than 10 litres/second.

Farm Plan with Freshwater module
All farms will be required to have a farm plan with a freshwater module, staggered over a timeframe. Government has committed to working with the primary sector, iwi/Māori, regional councils, and other interested groups on the minimum requirements.

There has been a small wording change to this policy to allow additional flexibility. However, the impact on farmers will depend on the consenting requirements which are yet to be worked through.

From mid-2020 the following will apply:

  • Stock need to be excluded from wetlands identified in council plans and excluded from streams.
  • Earthworks, drainage, clearing of indigenous vegetation in and around a wetland or stream, and the taking, damming, or diverting water will need to be ‘avoided’. These activities will require a consent, with the detail yet to be clarified.
  • Sphagnum moss can be harvested if the effects are no more than minor
  • Work can occur in a wetland for restoration or cultural purposes (including scientific and research) if the effects are no more than minor.
  • Streams (in urban and rural areas) must not be filled in unless there is no other option, with earthworks in-stream requiring a consent. Again, the type and conditions of the consent have not been settled.

Intensification – Land Use Change

From mid-2020 until the end of 2024, you will have to apply for a consent for some forms of intensification, mainly land use change. From the end of 2024, it is expected that regional council plans will provide the framework for decisions on intensification.

The requirements are different from (improved) those proposed and the impacts on farmers will depend on the nature of the consent. You will still have to get consent for a:

  • Change in land use (above 10 hectares) from forestry or woody vegetation to pastoral farming
  • Change in land use (above 10 hectares) from any other use to dairy
  • Increase in forage cropping above the highest annual amount in the previous farm years 2014/15–2018/19
  • Increase in dairy support activities above the highest annual amount in the previous farm years 2014/15–2018/19
  • Increase the area under irrigation on an existing dairy farm by more than 10 hectares
    … but:
    • There is now more flexibility for councils to look at the impact across a catchment when considering individual consent applications.
    • There is a ‘sunset’ clause – these restrictions will only apply for four years, until the end of 2024.
Areas that have not been materially improved from the original proposals
Grazing on winter forage crop

Under the new regulations, grazing stock on forage crops in winter will be a permitted activity if the:

  • Paddock is less than 10-degrees slope, and
  • Area being planted is either less than 50 ha or 10 per cent of the property, whichever is the larger, and
  • Crop is set back more than five metres from a waterway.

Winter grazing that meets these ‘permitted activity’ criteria will still have to meet the following standards:

  • Pugging is to be no deeper than 20 cm and cover less than 50 per cent of the paddock
  • Bare ground in paddocks subject to winter grazing is re-sown as soon as practicable, but in any event no later than within one month after the end of grazing.

From winter 2021, if you want to plant above these thresholds or exceed the practice standards, you will need to get a resource consent. At this point it is not clear what consent (and therefore cost) will be required and this will matter.

Nitrogen fertiliser cap

The regulations set an upper limit, or cap, on how much synthetic nitrogen fertiliser can be used.

This cap will not apply to arable or horticultural farming.

A national synthetic nitrogen fertiliser cap of 190kg/N/ha/year will apply to all pastoral sectors with dairy farmers being required to report annually to councils the weight of nitrogen applied per hectare.

The cap level will be reviewed in 2023 to see if further interventions are necessary. If you want to apply nitrogen above this cap you will need to apply for a non-complying resource consent (only applies to nitrogen applied as synthetic fertiliser).


The fertiliser cap is staring me in the face. If some dairy farmers are reducing or even eliminating artificial fertiliser from their regime and adding fertiliser is bad for the water catchment, could this not be an area where education and improved farming practice plays a part?

The air is 78% nitrogen and nitrogen from the air is free. Nitrifying bacteria in the soil can convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrites and nitrates for some plants. Are conventional farmers making full use of the free stuff before buying the expensive stuff in the bag?

Keep asking great questions …