Keeping the glass full: Freshwater Reform

Thursday 19 December 2013

Authors: Marija Batistich and Natasha Garvan

​First published in NZ Winegrower, December 2013 – January 2014 edition.

The Government has recently released proposed amendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2011 (the NPS) following recommendations by the Land and Water Forum (as discussed in a previous issue of NZ Winegrower) that a national instrument should establish a national objectives framework under which regional councils set freshwater state objectives at a regional/catchment scale. The main proposed amendments are briefly discussed below.

Accounting for all water takes and contaminant discharges

It is proposed that councils will be required to establish and operate a water quality and quantity accounting system either based on measurements, modelling results, or estimates. The information is to be recorded at the level of the management unit which can be set as large or as small as councils consider appropriate (for example multiple catchments or part of a catchment). The information must be updated at least every five years for water quality and annually for water quantity.

The accounting information must be available when setting or reviewing limits. The rationale is that making good decisions on limits and how to manage within them requires good information on existing resource use, with an assessment of all water takes and all sources of relevant contaminants including diffuse discharges and those permitted by regional plan rules.

Establishing a national framework to support communities setting freshwater objectives

It is proposed that the national objectives framework be included in the NPS to provide councils with scientific information and a process for setting freshwater objectives. The framework includes: a set of freshwater values and uses with narrative descriptions of each; a set of attributes associated with some of the values and uses including ranges of numbers that represent different states that the attribute may be managed for; and a process for setting freshwater objectives at the chosen attribute states to provide for the chosen values of freshwater management units.

As part of the freshwater objective setting process, councils and communities must consider all of the values and uses of water bodies and decide whether they apply in each freshwater management unit. The framework assists in ensuring that the values are achieved to a minimum level (for example, the water body being fit for swimming). Leading scientists from across New Zealand have been involved in developing and testing the technical information in the framework, so by including it within the NPS this prevents unnecessary duplication and cost.

Establishing compulsory national values in regional plans

The Government has determined that some values are so important to all New Zealanders that they are likely to apply to all water bodies. These are ecosystem health and human health for secondary contact recreation. The framework sets out a number of proposed attributes for these values in terms of numeric states (such as E. Coli and nitrate toxicity) but it is intended more attributes will be proposed for the next few versions of the framework.

Introducing national 'bottom lines' for ecosystem and human health

It is proposed that the NPS defines minimum acceptable states called "national bottom lines", for each of the attributes for ecosystem health and human health. These bottom lines set the minimum level at which the compulsory values are provided for. The Government considers that the quality of most water bodies is already above the proposed bottom lines, but where these are not currently met freshwater objectives would need to be set at the bottom of what is described as the "C state" or better for all attributes relating to ecosystem health and human health for secondary contact recreation unless the criteria for an exception can be met as discussed below.

Including restricted grounds for exceptions to 'bottom lines'

It is suggested that a regional council would be allowed to set a freshwater objective below a national bottom line in narrowly defined situations (after public input during the planning process including submissions and hearings). It is stated that exceptions are needed to recognise circumstances where it is not feasible or possible to improve water quality to the required level. The exceptions are where a freshwater management unit is contaminated from natural processes or it has been subject to historical activities that have created lasting impacts on water quality and the reversal of those impacts is not reasonably practicable, either physically or ecologically, even in the long term.

The Government also proposes that it will be able to decide after applying criteria if an exception should be made where water quality is affected by significant existing infrastructure. For example, hydroelectricity generation.

Submissions on the proposed amendments close at 5pm on Tuesday 4 February 2014. Please contact Marija Batistich or Natasha Garvan of Bell Gully if you would like assistance with drafting a submission. You can provide a submission by emailing or writing to Water Submissions, Ministry for the Environment, PO Box 10362, Wellington 6143.


This publication is necessarily brief and general in nature. You should seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters dealt with in this publication.

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