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New Zealand’s Three Waters Reforms: Prioritising the well-being of freshwater ecosystems

October 10, 2019

By Jess Grinter and Frances Lojkine

The draft National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management aims to provide a holistic approach for managing the nation’s freshwater resources, but it introduces many new requirements

The New Zealand government announced a range of proposed changes to the country’s water regulations in September 2019. The proposals they’re presenting are wide ranging and could translate into a raft of new requirements relating to the monitoring, managing, and reporting of changes in water resources across the country.

In the first of a series of blogs, we explore the draft National Policy for Freshwater Management (NPSFM), which will replace the existing NPSFM (2017). Submissions on the draft NPSFM can be made until 31 October 2019. The new NPSFM is a keystone of the wide range of proposals in the government’s “action for healthy waterways” package.

The fundamental objective of the draft NPSFM enshrines Te Mana o te Wai (or the mana of the water, referring to the fundamental value of water and the importance of prioritising the health and well-being of water before providing for human needs and wants) and communicates a strong focus on safeguarding “the mana and mauri, and overall health and well-being, of freshwater bodies.”

Godley River flowing into Lake Tekapo on New Zealand's South Island.

This focus will need to be reflected in Regional Policy Statements, which will inform and provide context for all subsequent decision-making on freshwater issues. The work to refocus Regional Policy Statements is critical to the future of freshwater management across New Zealand—given that the changes will impact everyone, it is vital that all stakeholders are involved.

While a significant portion of the work required to implement the NPSFM will lie with regional councils, it will rely on everybody working together to achieve success.

The draft NPSFM sets out a clear hierarchy—the health and well-being of water bodies and ecosystems followed by the essential health needs of people, and then other uses of water—to meet their objective. While the mechanisms for prioritising aren’t clear—e.g., how “meeting the essential health needs of people” will be prioritised in relation to aquatic ecosystem health or providing for economic growth—to successfully implement the draft NPSFM the Government will need to align with the range of other proposed policies and legislative changes currently out for consultation, like the National Policy Statement for Urban Development.

While a significant portion of the work required to implement the NPSFM will lie with regional councils, it will rely on everybody working together to achieve success. For example, the draft NPSFM includes a requirement for District Plans to “include objectives, policies, and methods to avoid, remedy, or mitigate the cumulative adverse effects of land use on freshwater bodies, freshwater ecosystems, and sensitive receiving environments resulting from urban development”. These requirements will be directly relevant for the planning and asset management departments of Territorial Authorities.

Hutt River, near Wellington (North Island, New Zealand)

Attributes and the National Objectives Framework 

The draft NPSFM extends the existing attributes within the National Objectives Framework (NOF) and clarifies the process by which the NOF is to be implemented.

Key changes in the draft NPSFM relating to attributes and the NOF, include:

  • Adding “threatened species” to the list of Compulsory Values. Regional councils will be required to demonstrate that Freshwater Management Units where threatened species are present will have the conditions necessary to support their continued presence and survival.
  • Targets for attributes relating to human contact will have to be set above the National Bottom Line. Maintenance of the status quo will no longer be acceptable.
  • Targets for other attributes will need to be set at or above the National Bottom Line, in a similar fashion to the current maintain or improve approach.
  • A lack of information about a water body or attribute will no longer be a viable reason to avoid acting.
  • Regional councils will be required to set timeframes against their targets, including interim targets for any long-term timeframes.
  • The NOF currently identifies whether regional councils are required to set limits for each attribute, and/or develop actions plans to improve achievements in the longer term.

Changes to the list of attributes requiring limits include:

  • Including tables for dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) and dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP) to address nutrient effects. These parameters are only included as a requirement for monitoring under the Periphyton attribute in the current NPSFM.
  • Including new attribute tables for suspended and deposited fine sediment in rivers.

Monitoring and reporting requirements for regional councils are likely to be significantly increased if the draft NPSFM attributes, NOF process, monitoring and reporting are applied as currently written.

An outcome of the setting of National Bottom Lines for a wider range of attributes will be to stop the continued degradation of “sacrificial” catchments, where adverse effects on ecosystem health have occurred, because the catchment is seen to have a lower tangible value than other catchments in a region.

A female koura (freshwater crayfish—a mahinga kai species) found in Hulls Creek, Silverstream (near Wellington, New Zealand).

Valuing mahinga kai

The discussion document asks whether mahinga kai or another “tangata whenua value” should be a compulsory value in Appendix 1A. Mahinga kai refers to Indigenous freshwater species that have traditionally been used for food (kai), tools, or other resources. It also refers to the places those species are found and to the act of catching them.  Assessment of whether targets for mahinga kai values are being met would be substantially different from regional councils’ current work. Specialist knowledge of fisheries, habitat structures, and conservation approaches and tikanga would be essential; this knowledge has historically been the domain of iwi, and of some central government agencies such as the Department of Conservation.

If mahinga kai values become a compulsory value, this specialist information would need to be applied to all water bodies in New Zealand. While this would benefit safeguarding mahinga kai values for current and future generations, central government will need to provide very clear and detailed guidance in order to ensure regional councils understand their requirements.  

Wetland area along the shore of Lake Manapouri (South Island, New Zealand).

Wetland management and fish passage

The draft NPSFM differentiates between coastal, constructed, inland, and natural wetlands. However, it’s currently unclear how existing wetlands constructed for freshwater management purposes, like wetlands for stormwater detention and those associated with wastewater treatment plants, would be treated under the NPSFM, and whether the operation of these wetlands would or could be constrained.

Most of the new requirements are focused on the management of natural wetlands. These include:

  • A policy that loss or degradation of natural wetlands is to be avoided (remembering that “avoid” has strict interpretations following the King Salmon Supreme Court decision in 2014).
  • Most wetlands in a region are to be identified and mapped and a monitoring plan developed.

Again, these requirements will present significant work especially for those regional councils that have not already identified wetlands across their regions. Requirements relating to wetland management and land use, which may jeopardise the integrity of wetland areas, are included in the proposed National Environmental Standard for Freshwater (NESFW).

Objectives that achieve diversity and abundance of fish in streams will need to be included in regional plans, if not there already. Policies in the draft NPSFM focus particularly on providing for fish passage to achieve this, and are supported by the proposed NESFW.

Acoustic flow profiling on the Eglinton River, near Milford Sound (South Island, New Zealand).

Changing our course

The draft NPSFM represents a significant shift in how we manage freshwater resources in New Zealand, with many positive and innovative changes including placing greater importance on the principles of Te Mana o te Wai and including a wider range of attributes to measure aquatic ecosystem health in a more holistic manner.

Once operative, the new NPSFM will underpin all freshwater management in New Zealand. Regional councils and territorial authorities will continue to be required to give effect to the NPSFM with all the necessary changes to their regional policy statements and regional plans publicly notified by the end of 2023. Final decisions are to be made by the end of 2025.

It will be interesting to hear how the substantial amount of work required to fully implement the draft NPSFM by December 2025 will be resourced and funded across the nation. While a draft, streamlined process for plan changes to give effect to the new NPSFM is included in the Resource Management Act (RMA) Amendment Bill (released on 27 September 2019 with submissions closing 7 November 2019), the new process will require up to 5 freshwater hearings commissioners to be involved in up to 17 regional plan review processes. It is difficult to envisage how these resources will be secured, without compromising the capabilities of Councils and other industry groups to also conduct “business as usual.” Clarifying resources (and funding) prior to finalising the NPSFM in 2020 will be vital.

Our next article will analyse the proposed National Environmental Standard for Freshwater (NESFW), which delves further into new requirements for wetland management, fish passage, and a tightening of controls on land use activities (particularly in rural areas).

  • Jess Grinter

    Jess is an established environmental scientist with over ten years of experience in New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

    Contact Jess
  • Frances Lojkine

    A senior principal planner with a focus on the development of policy and plans, Frances does most of her work with aquaculture regulations, marine farms, and local councils.

    Contact Frances
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