Essential Freshwater Policy

Freshwater is an essential resource, and is critical to food production, human health, biodiversity and recreation. While many water quality trends are showing improvement in farmed areas, national monitoring has shown there is still more work to do - particularly around the big four: nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and E. coli.

It will be important for all farmers to understand this policy and the implications for their business. Together, we will continue to improve water quality across New Zealand, helping farmers navigate these rules by supporting on-farm innovation with clever science and world leading tools.

Which sectors will this policy impact?

This policy will affect a range of sectors.

Particular emphasis has been placed on high-input, intensively grazed livestock systems.

What effects will this have on-farm?

Click here to download our policy overview document.

Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser cap

Synthetic nitrogen includes any manufactured fertiliser product (solid or liquid) that is more than 5% nitrogen. Excludes dairy effluent, compost, animal or plant waste.

  • A cap of 190 kg N/ha/yr averaged across grazed land on a farm (includes forage crops); and
  • A cap of 190 kg N/ha/yr applied to any one hectare of pasture grazed by livestock (excludes forage crops)
  • Dairy farms required to report nitrogen use from 2021/22 season by 31 July each year
  • Consent required if nitrogen use exceeds either cap

A paddock used for forage cropping may receive more than 190 kg N/ha/year, but this must be offset by lower applications to the grazed pastoral area on the farm.

A crop or paddock that is not used to graze livestock (e.g. maize grain/silage) is excluded from these restrictions.

Intensive winter grazing

Intensive winter grazing applies to any annual forage crop grazed by livestock at any time between 1 May and 30 September in any one year.

Areas used for intensive winter grazing from 2021 onwards must comply with the Certified Freshwater Farm Plan.

If no plan exists, the following conditions must be met for the cropped area:

  • No greater than 50 ha or 10% of the property, whichever is greater
  • Paddock must have a mean slope ≤ 10°
  • Pugging covers ≤ 50% of the area (>5 cm depth), and pugging is no deeper than 20 cm (excluding around fixed structures)
  • All livestock kept ≥ 5 m away from rivers, lakes, wetlands and drains, regardless of whether water is flowing
  • Replanted as soon as practical, but no later than 1st October of same year (Exception: Otago/Southland 1st November of same year)

Areas that do not comply with all of the conditions above may need a resource consent by 1 May 2021, or 31 October 2021 for those with existing use rights. Consult your Regional Council for more information.

Consent will only be given if the area of winter forage is no greater than the maximum area of winter forage crop grown on that farm between 2014 and 2019.

Intensification and land use change

From 3 September 2020, converting more than 10 ha of land to a more intensive land use will require resource consent. These changes include converting from forestry to pastoral, pastoral to dairy or dairy support, or increasing the irrigated area in a dairy system.

To acquire resource consent, landowners must demonstrate that the environmental impacts attributed to the land use will not increase. These rules are in place until 2025, when it is expected they will be superseded at a regional level.

Stock exclusion

A series of stock exclusion rules will be phased in from 3 September 2020. These rules require a 3 m setback from the edge of a lake or river more than 1 m wide. Specifically:

  • All dairy cattle, pigs, intensive beef and deer on all slopes from 2023
  • All beef cattle and deer on low-slope land (< 10°), and dairy support from 2025
  • All cattle, deer and pigs excluded from currently mapped wetlands from 2023, and all other wetlands from 2025
  • Does not apply to sheep

A fence that is already in place on 3 September 2020, meets the minimum standards, and excludes animals from a waterway can remain in place (even if it is less than 3 m from the edge of the waterway).

Wetland management

Disturbance of wetlands (i.e. earthworks, vegetation clearance) within 10 m of a natural wetland is only permitted for a selection of reasons (e.g. restoration, scientific research, and clearing debris).

Councils must be notified of these activities with at least 10 days’ notice, and consent will be required in certain circumstances.

Feedlots and stock holding areas

Feedlot includes a stockholding area where cattle are kept for at least 80 days in any 6-month period, and are fed exclusively by hand or machine.

Feedlots will likely require resource consent, and will need to meet a series of minimum standards concerning permeability, effluent management, and proximity to waterbodies.

Stock holding areas include feed pads, winter pads, standoff pads, and loafing pads.

Stock holding areas are permitted so long as they are included in the Certified Freshwater Farm Plan, or meet the minimum standards. If not, a resource consent is required from winter 2021.

Measurement and Report of Water Takes

From 2023, irrigation consent holders who take 5-20 litres of water/ second or more must:

  • Measure their water use every 15 minutes
  • Store their records
  • Electronically submit their records to their council every day

Where do I find the key documents?

These are listed below and took effect on 3 September 2020:


Contact us

Our team can provide expert advice to help you understand and navigate these changes.

Contact your local Ballance Nutrient Specialist, or one of our Farm Sustainability Services team.

Alternatively, contact our Customer Services team on 0800 222 090.

Essential Freshwater - key policy milestones

For more information

To discuss the specific requirements for your farm, contact your local Regional Council.

Click here for our overview document.

For industry information on the policy, contact Beef & Lamb, DairyNZ, Deer Industry NZ, HortNZ.