$100m plan aims to buy farmland near waterways

The National Party has pledged to spend $100 million over 10 years to buy and retire farmland next to waterways to provide a buffer and improve water quality.

The party is also promising to ban dairy cattle from waterways as it seeks to combat growing concern over the state of New Zealand's rivers, streams and lakes – though that ban would not apply to cattle from non-dairy farms.

But the Green Party has dismissed the policy as ''an election band-aid on a gaping wound'' because it doesn't address the main cause of water pollution - intensification of land use while Federated Farmers have questioned why it was necessary.

Announcing the policy at Waituna Lagoon in Southland where the Department of Conservation and dairy giant Fonterra have a partnership to improve water quality, the party's environment spokeswoman, Amy Adams, said the plan would help protect New Zealand's 400,000 kilometres of rivers and more than 4000 lakes.

"This fund will give councils another option to help manage freshwater by enabling these sensitive areas to be retired for environmental purposes," Adams said.

According to Adams the funding would buy farms either of special significance where there was significant degradation or waterways which would improve the quality of water for an entire catchment.

"We genuinely believe that you actually can increase your agricultural output but at the same time seeing improving water standards in New Zealand," National leader and Prime Minister John Key said.

"Wealthy economies look after their environments and they do that because they have the financial resources to do it."

On mandatory fencing Adams said it was time for "the tail to catch up" with around 90 per cent of waterways already fenced.

Dairy cattle would be excluded from waterways by July 1, 2017, while the party would work to extend that to other types of cattle over time.

"The dairy sector has done a tremendous job on a voluntary basis to date but we think it's now the time to move that to a mandatory requirement by 2017."

The policy built on the implementation of national standards for waterways, introduced this year and which aim to make waters safe for boating and wading, Adams said.

The standards have been dismissed by opponents as too weak and Labour and the Greens have promised stronger measures.

Primary industries spokesman Nathan Guy praised the voluntary efforts of farmers to address environmental concerns, saying they had fenced more than 23,000 kilometres – or 90 per cent – of all dairy-farm waterways.

"This is an incredible undertaking to do voluntarily," Guy said. "At the end of the day, farmers are environmentalists; they want to leave their land in a better state for their children, and their grandchildren."
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Guy added farmers also realised that the expectations of customers were changing.

"They realise that our international markets are requiring more of us inside the farm gate in terms of environmental sustainability."

National's approach was to work with farmers and other stakeholders to improve water quality, rather than "aggressively penalising and taxing key industries".

"A mandatory requirement will bolster this great work and highlight the importance of this key environmental protection," he said.

The party said that managing the waterways more efficiently had the potential to add up to $4 billion to the country's economy by 2026.

It would stick to its commitment to spend up to $400m from asset sales on regional irrigation projects.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said the National Government had encouraged and subsidised irrigation that would lead to increasing land use intensification which would lead to more water pollution.

''John Key must stop simultaneously subsidising pollution and pollution clean-up and focus on preventing environmental damage from happening in the first place.''

Fencing off cows was a ''token gesture'' if it didn’t go further and and dairy conversion needed to be halted.

National should have heeded the advice of the working group which drafted National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and who recommended the government require land owners to obtain resource consent for land use intensification.

''National's irrigation subsidy will result in the degradation of our rivers and lakes and the taxpayer will end up having to pay for waterway clean-ups.''

Federated Farmers Dairy chairperson Andrew Hoggard questioned why the measure was necessary, saying water quality was "generally stable to improving" as a result of existing efforts.

"Government needs to think carefully about the policy message this will send," he said.

Stock exclusion was already effectively compulsory as it was a condition for supply to Fonterra, hence the exclusion from 90 per cent of waterways (23,000km worth) already.

Federated Farmers Meat & Fibre chairperson Rick Powdrell said it was "nigh impossible" for drystock farmers to fence off all waterways due to topography issues such as gullies.