The Government has to "wade into" the water quality issue and provide more guidance, support, and, at times, direction to regional councils, Environment Minister Amy Adams has told farmers.
"Central government for years has been far too hands off," she told Federated Farmers' provincial presidents meeting in Wellington.
"Expecting councils to be able to land this stuff without any sort of assistance from the centre is not a sensible approach."
Her comments come as several regional councils are setting controversial rules for water quality. One, the Manawatu-Whanganui One Plan, is being appealed to the High Court.
Adams, a Canterbury sheep and cropping farmer, said the sector was failing to win the "hearts and minds" of urban people on water quality.
"The thing that scares me the most when I travel around New Zealand and talk to business groups, is when sensible people say to me, ‘When are you going to sort out those filthy farmers'. You guys can scoff but this is a problem. We live in a democracy and it is about numbers and we're losing the battle."
She assured them that while she would not let water quality deteriorate, "nor am I going to rip the guts out of the productive sector. There are going to be some changes but we have to do them in a way that makes sense for both of those objectives".
In changes to the Resource Management Act due to go before Parliament she would require councils to improve their economic analysis of major changes.
"The quality of those reports to date has been sub-optimal.
"I have seen cost-benefit analyses done by regional councils that have no numbers in them. I have seen impact assessments that say, ‘Well, there might be some impact by this land use change but we think it is outweighed by environmental benefit'. Literally, that is the analysis."
Councils would have to be clearer about the impact of their decisions. "I want communities to be asking themselves, ‘OK, we can improve our water quality in this way and at this rate and it will have this impact on our GDP and jobs, or we can do it on this track and on this time and it will have that impact'."
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