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Is it a Wetland or Not?

By Anna Bensemann, Senior Planner, Baseline Group | Oct 07, 2022

Wetlands as wet boggy parts of farms have become more complicated to understand and identify. Wetlands play an important role in our ecosystems providing water filtration and a plethora of biodiversity values. Rare and threatened plants find refuge in many of our remnant wetlands, and they play host to native birds and reptiles.

However, managing wetlands located within farms raises challenges around stock exclusion and land drainage management. In recent years many councils began mapping wetlands in an effort to provide a clear rules framework, and to delineate clearly where rules apply. In many cases, this work was undertaken remotely using aerial photography and then verified on ground where either landowner permitted access, or when rules triggered a need for resource consent. This usually resulted in reports by experts which clearly set out the wetland values and more clearly defined boundaries.

Rules to manage the use in and around wetlands typically include specific setbacks for structures, earthworks and stock, to allow space for the wetland to thrive. In one region, this was an 8-metre setback and provided certainty to landowners that their actions would not impact the wetland values.

New central government rules introduced in 2020 through the Fresh Water Policy Statement and associated Freshwater Environment Standard changes these provisions and introduced a 10 m setback to be adopted by authorities and to change rules around what activities can occur in and around wetlands.

Furthermore, these provisions make it clear that wetlands might extend or be located outside of those previously mapped by District or Regional Councils. This can make it more challenging to understand when the rules might apply, as landowners first need to work out if they are dealing with a wetland at all. This has been considered by the Environment Court in recent times where a wetland was considered as having a larger extent than previously mapped by council.

As National Environmental Standards are further up the hierarchy than District or Regional plan provisions under the RMA, the clear central government direction effectively trumps local rules. This means that landowners who previously thought they knew exactly where wetlands triggered rules, and what those rules were, may now have to look to the National Environmental Standards for additional rules.

If you have a wetland on your property or an area which might be considered a natural wetland, it’s important to understand the extent of the wetland and what rules from both the National Environmental Standard on Freshwater and regional or district plans might apply. Understanding these rules will help you to achieve a productive farm and be the guardian of your wetland, ensuring it provides flora and fauna benefits for generations to come.

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