Water plan change: what does it mean?

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Otago Regional Council chief executive Sarah Gardner talks about proposed changes to the ORC’s water plan in this week’s Protecting our Water series.

Improving water quality across Otago is a critical priority, and the Otago Regional Council is committed to setting the best regional rules to achieve that.

Last month, our councillors approved a staff proposal to make some changes to our water plan, and especially the rural water quality rules – provisions of “plan change 6A” – which were due to take effect in April 2020.

Their decision means that the ORC will be notifying two changes to the water plan in the coming months.

The first, to be notified this October, will extend the deadline for contaminant thresholds in water discharges and a nitrogen-leaching limit from 2020 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 the ORC with central government expectations and policy. We’ll be consulting with the rural community and industry groups about this change.

This proposal is by no means doing away with 6A or stepping back from the ORC’s water quality commitments; quite the contrary. These changes are about recognising issues in implementing some aspects of the rules due to take effect next year, and addressing those issues with up-to-date tools and frameworks to achieve the best water quality outcomes for Otago.

What does this mean for me?

The most immediate impact is that if you were considering applying for a consent because of the upcoming rules, this change means you will not need to do so. The 2020 deadline will be pushed out to 2023 in the first plan change, and ultimately the 6A requirements will be superseded with clearer and more robust rules by the second plan change.

We encourage land-users to maintain and build on good management practices; these plan changes will not diminish our enforcement regime around the existing prohibited activity rules in the meantime. Those robust rules have been tested in court, and they protect our waterways from the impacts of gross negligence.

What parts of 6A need to be addressed, and why?

12.C.1.1A:

Rule 12.C.1.1A sets maximum discharge contaminant concentration for rural discharges. Discharge sampling is challenging in practice, and there are uncertainties over where discharges have been sampled.

12.C.1.3 Overseer:

This rule sets nitrogen-leaching limits based on Overseer estimates. It does not specify whether the limits apply to a three- or five-year average, and it does not address Overseer version changes.

What about urban water quality?

One of the changes proposed to strengthen our water quality framework will introduce stricter rules around sediment run-off and disturbance on building sites and new developments. We cannot ignore the increasing pressure such developments are putting on waterways as a result of sediment discharges.

What will the ORC do on the ground?

Our rural liaison team will have greater clarity of focus. It will advise farmers who want to do the right thing and improve water quality through good management practices. Our compliance efforts will focus particularly on prohibited activity rules, and we will enforce those rules consistently.