The Future for Fresh Water

Continuing its programme of significant reforms, the Government has recently released a discussion paper setting out the proposed reform package for managing fresh water in New Zealand. 

Freshwater is undoubtedly a critical resource that has a wide range of values and potential benefits. The reform package should therefore be of interest to all New Zealanders as it sets out the pathway for managing the resource into the future. 

Building on the work of the Land and Water Forum over the past four years, the paper promotes some immediate changes to be implemented later this year, along with a programme of future reform to achieve longer term goals.

The final page of this article provides an illustration of the proposed freshwater management process, which covers the following three areas discussed in this article:

  • Planning as a community;

  • National objectives framework; and

  • Managing within limits.


Planning as a community

The traditional process for managing water is the same as other planning processes under the RMA, where a plan is developed by a local authority and is submitted on, contested and appealed by different interest groups. This often results in the final determination falling to the Courts.

Recognising the benefits of collaborative processes (such as that adopted in Canterbury under the

Canterbury Water Management Strategy), the Government has proposed an alternative to the usual RMA process for the development of water plans. The key features of this are as follows:

  • Appointment of a collaborative stakeholder group involving representatives for the community to give advice as the plan is developed;

  • Flexibility for the Council to design its own process for development of the plan, subject to some minimum requirements;

  • An independent hearings panel appointed to hear submissions and evidence on the plan;

  • Appeal rights to the Environment Court only available if the Council departs from the panel’s recommendations, with any appeals limited to a rehearing with restrictions on new evidence.

  • A more prominent and mandatory role for iwi/Māori in the collaborative process.

Some aspects of this process are similar to those announced in the Government’s broader reform package for the RMA (see our earlier article on this). Although the adoption of a collaborative process is likely to be generally supported due to the benefits it can provide, the significant limitations on appeal rights may prove more controversial.

National objectives framework

“Greater national guidance and consistency” has been a well used phrase by the Government in its recent reform programme. This theme continues with the Government proposing to establish a National Objectives Framework applying to all water bodies.

The Framework will contain a list of ‘values’ that may be associated with a water body, such as swimming, fishing, or irrigation. Each value will have a range of quality and quantity ‘attributes’ that must be managed to allow that value to be provided for, such as sediment concentrations and flows. The Framework will then specify a range of ‘bands’ for each attribute (A, B, C, or D), which represent a range of environmental states, including the minimum acceptable state or ‘bottom line’.

It will be the responsibility of local communities and Councils to decide which values are applicable to water bodies in their region (with the exception of ecosystem and human health, which apply to all water bodies).  The region may also choose the relevant ‘band’ it wishes to achieve depending on the local context and on national and community aspirations.

Applying this approach is intended to provide a more consistent framework for managing water and establish some environmental bottom lines for water quality and quantity. At the same time, the process is intended to provide flexibility for local communities to determine the values they wish to preserve and the standards they wish to achieve, taking into account the costs and benefits of their choices.

Managing within limits

The first two steps outlined above are about improving the process by which Councils and communities set limits to achieve their freshwater objectives. An equally if not more difficult challenge is how to manage activities within these limits once set, particularly in circumstances where the limits may already be exceeded.

Some of the immediate reforms to help achieve this include introducing requirements for Councils to account for all freshwater takes and contaminants in their region to establish better quality information for decision making. The Government is also proposing to compile information ‘toolkits’ to encourage best practice and improve the efficient use of fresh water.

The more challenging and controversial solutions for managing within limits are yet to be determined and will remain under consideration for the next 5-10 years. This includes methods to deal with over allocation, unauthorised takes, takes that do not require water permits, and compliance and enforcement. Other long term issues include the duration of consents, alternative allocation tools, and the transfer and trade of permits. These are complex matters with no easy answers and which will no doubt be the subject of further debate and reform.     

Have your say

Many stakeholders will already have had some input on these issues through involvement in the Land and Water Forum process. However, the release of the discussion document provides a further opportunity for any person to comment on these issues as they are translated into a more concrete reform proposal.

The discussion document is open for submission until  8 April 2013. This is likely to be the final opportunity to comment on the proposed changes before they are incorporated into the 2013 Resource Management Reform Bill later this year. 

A copy of the discussion paper can be viewed here


Managing Fresh Water in NZ



Disclaimer: This is a brief summary for information purposes only and is not legal advice.

Posted on Thursday 14th March, 2013 at 02:10 pm