Navigating the sustainability road

Sustainable management - it’s the cornerstone of the RMA and the touch point against which all decisions relative to the Act are made.

At its heart, the RMA is simply about allowing the use of resources in a manner that ensures that people can provide for their social, economic and cultural wellbeing in the here and now, while ensuring something is left for future generations.

There’s no doubt it’s a delicate balancing act and it’s not easy to strike the right balance.
Recent developments in the regulation of on-farm nutrient management may leave some increasingly frustrated, and feel that achieving “sustainable management” is becoming a moving target.

The attention on farming land use and nutrient management is a direct result of the Government’s soon to be updated National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2014 (NPS). Mandated by the RMA, the NPS directs regional councils to set allocation limits for water quality and quantity, and objectives to ensure freshwater quality is at or above national standards or “bottom lines” by 2030. The NPS is silent on how the bottom lines are to be achieved and it has left that up to individual councils to determine through their own regional planning processes.

Whatever view you have of the NPS, the reality is that it, and the regional plans that will implement it, are law. Burying your head in the sand, in the hope that it’s an aberration might seem like the easiest option at the moment. But we urge you to take some control. Be proactive and stay informed and be engaged. That way, you’ll know what you’re facing
and can make the right decisions for your operation based on knowledge, not knee jerk reaction.

As the saying goes “knowledge is power”. Ensure you fully understand the regional plan rules that apply in your patch, and what steps you’ll need to take on-farm (operations) and off-farm (consents) to comply. Read the plan or the proposals and ask your regional council whether any explanatory material exists. Talk to your neighbours, friends and colleagues. Attend seminars and workshops in your area. Seek advice from your farm advisor, environmental consultant or lawyer.

In most regions, there are still good opportunities to get involved in the regional rule making process. The recent law reform has imbedded the “collaborative” planning process rolled out by the Canterbury Water Management Strategy for progressing catchment-specific regional planning regimes in the RMA (with a few tweaks). It’s likely that this approach - which allows for early stakeholder involvement in plan development – will be adopted in regions other than Canterbury.

There’s no denying that regional plan changes resulting from the NPS will be a game changer for many farmers, and there’s still considerable uncertainty around what the future holds under a much stricter land use management regime. So stay engaged and make your voice heard. Remember: a regional plan is only ever going to be as good as its inputs.

And while the enforcement of nitrogen base lines (and in some areas – reductions below base lines) might be seen as prioritising preservation of the environment over the land owner’s rights to use their property however they wish, the law is simply asking for commercial practice to be carried out in a responsible manner, and the upshot of that will be the continuation of land use for commercial activity in decades to come.

Georgina Hamilton