Improving our freshwater management

  • Amy Adams

Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us at Zealandia today.

We choose this venue for today’s announcement because the Kaiwharawhara catchment that the Sanctuary lies in has over the years been a microcosm of some of the challenges that the Government’s freshwater reforms seek to address.

The catchment is influenced by forestry, farming, regenerating native bush, urban and industrial land uses.

This presents a challenging cocktail of impacts on the water quality of the stream and its environs.

We have seen great gains here since the old days when sewage and industrial waste were frequently discharged into the stream.

While such discharges are no longer the problem they used to be, discharges of nutrients and contaminants continue to cause issues from time to time.

Greater Wellington Regional Council works in partnership with the city council and local community groups to improve the water quality.

Together, the community is turning this catchment back into an attractive natural resource, just minutes from the city centre.

What lies at the heart of the Government’s freshwater reforms is support to make this job easier for councils and communities. We need better processes and information, with more tools and guidance so that communities can make better decisions about managing their water.

History of the reforms

It is undeniable that in the past we have lacked sophistication about how we have managed and used our freshwater.

It is important to remember that many of the problems we see today have been 140 years in the making.

There is no overnight fix.

But we can no longer afford to shrug our shoulders and ignore it, or hope that someone else will fix it for us. We have to start from what we do have and what we do know – and then build from it.

In 2009 the Government asked the Land and Water Forum to advise us on how to manage the issues around water.

Looking to the stakeholders in this way was ground-breaking. It was the first use of a collaborative approach for such a big and complex policy issue in New Zealand.

Many people thought it would be a noble but short-lived effort. They were proved wrong – the Land and Water Forum worked together for four years and produced three reports with more than 150 recommendations for government.

What many people forget is that councils have long been required to set water management objectives in their plans.

But what has been missing is a clear pathway or national direction on how to set limits to achieve this.

The National Policy Statement we introduced in 2011 was an important step, but we recognised that further guidance would be needed.

In March this year, we proposed further measures focussing on good science and robust information, and a national framework to help regional councils and communities set their freshwater objectives and limits.

Now, we are seeking the public’s feedback on more detailed proposals for how this will happen.

Announcement – release of discussion document

Today, Minister Guy and I are pleased to release this discussion document.

It contains proposals for additions to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management that will take our freshwater reforms to the next step.

I would like to take you through the key proposals that we want feedback on.

The first I will mention is that the discussion document proposes explicit consideration of tangata whenua values for freshwater, such as Te Mana o te Wai which reflects the intrinsic value of water.

Secondly, we want regional councils to better measure how much water is used in their region and what is discharged into water bodies.

This information is crucial for setting effective freshwater objectives and limits.

It is essential to understanding how to use our water more sustainably, and whether we are missing opportunities to get more productive use out of it than we currently do.

Thirdly, we are releasing more details of the national objectives framework to help communities set freshwater objectives.

When the Government took up the Land and Water Forum’s idea of a national framework for this purpose, the public feedback was resoundingly supportive.

The innovative thing about the proposed national objectives framework is that it provides regions with both a process, and a scientifically-informed basis for the difficult conversations that communities are already having on water quality.

Scientific information is critical to the conversation about managing our water, but it cannot resolve conflicts over values. Nor can it decide what trade-offs or choices are worth making; or who bears the costs or should benefit from these decisions.

Although we might agree that clean water is important, there are many different views about what this actually means and on how we can achieve the water quality for the uses we want.

There are also many different views on how much risk we are willing to tolerate, and what we are willing to sacrifice when we make choices about how we will use our water.

These are very difficult conversations for communities to have. And we all have stories about how hopeless or frustrating they can be, as many end up with continual and costly debate in the Environment Court.

The proposed framework provides a process for working through these issues – as well as numeric values for some of the water quality attributes we need to manage.

The proposed amendments provide compulsory national values with national bottom lines for ecosystem and human health for activities such boating and wading.

We expect people will debate the proposed bottom lines – that’s the nature of science and value judgements, and the purpose of a discussion document.

But, once agreed, the framework will reduce the arguments in council and in court over the science behind regional plans and resource consents.

I want to stress that the numeric values we are proposing for the bottom lines have been developed by more than 60 freshwater scientists, across public, private, and academic sectors.

The scientists have worked to ensure that these numbers are robust.

Ministers have not involved themselves with the scientific detail of the framework.

The numbers have also been tested with a reference group of water users that includes the primary sector, regional councils and recreational groups. We now want the views of the wider public.

For the numbers in the framework to be nationally applicable, a very high standard is required.

We have required that nationally-applicable regulations be tested for possible economic impacts, so that we can understand the impacts of the choices we are making now.

This level of robustness is the quality of information expected for regional decision-making so it is essential that we impose the same standard for national regulation.

We are confident that this has been a good process. If progressed, the framework will continue to develop as further science and our understanding of its application to our dynamic and complex freshwater environments becomes settled.

The framework will give people more certainty about what is allowed and what is not, and all this will save time and money.

While there are gaps, this initial version of the framework draws a line in the sand.

It says this is what we know now so let us stop arguing about it and get on with finding a better way of managing this valuable resource for the future.

We need agreement now on this first step in defining water quality values nationally. If we can do this, there will be less arguing and litigation and more emphasis on the choices we as a community want to make.

It is going to take some experience to find the best ways to work with the framework. But this does not let any of us off the hook.

We are going to have to work on these things, together, and make them work.


Ensuring good quality water is one of the most important environmental and economic issues facing New Zealand today.

If our water is to continue to be able to be used productively for the benefit of our children and grandchildren, it is time to work together to create a better way of managing it.

I am proud of the progress the Government has made with freshwater.

But we need to remember that this is the next step in a process that will take years, maybe decades.

There is more work to be done and more debate to be had. But I am confident that with the combined will of our council, communities, iwi, and water users – and with the support of our science community - we will see significant water quality gains within a generation.

I will now hand over now to Nathan Guy, who will give you the primary sector perspective. After that, we will be happy to take questions.