Submitted 8 April 2013: Read the NZCA's submission on the freshwater reform discussion document "Freshwater reform 2013 and beyond".

Submission date: 8 April 2013
Submitted to: Ministry for the Environment

Submission on discussion document ‘Freshwater reform 2013 and beyond'

Download the discussion document from the Ministry for the Environment website here

Identification of submitter

This submission is by the New Zealand Conservation Authority (NZCA), P O Box 10 420, Wellington 6143. Tel: (04) 471 3211. Email:

The NZCA is a statutory body, established by section 6A of the Conservation Act 1987, having functions centred on policy and planning for land, waters and species managed by the Department of Conservation.

The NZCA has the power to advocate for any conservation matter of national importance, and to take part in any statutory planning process.

In December 2011 the NZCA released recommendations for change in relation to the management of rivers. A copy of its report, which forms part of this submission, can be found at

The 13 members of the NZCA comprise a diverse group, appointed by the Minister of Conservation on the nomination or recommendation of four specified bodies (4 members), in consultation with three specified Ministers of the Crown (5 members) and after the receipt of public nominations (4 members).

The NZCA supports measures to improve the efficient use of water conditional on the maintenance of ecological and non-market values.

1. Important to link this set of proposed reforms to the Improving our resource management system reforms

Freshwater Reform 2013 and Beyond recognises the importance of water to New Zealand – across the board for all purposes.

However, it will become very difficult to implement these reforms in a manner that will produce good outcomes if the planned amendments to sections 6 and 7 of the Resource Management Act (RMAct) proceed in the manner set out in Improving our resource management system.

Of particular concern to the NZCA in the freshwater reforms context are the proposed removals of sections:

7(c) the maintenance and enhancement of amenity values

7(d) intrinsic values of ecosystems

7(f) maintenance and enhancement of the quality of the environment

7(g) any finite characteristic of natural and physical resources.

In addition, the use of the words “specified” and “significant” under the proposed 6(b) and (c) of the RMAct reforms means that not all aquatic ecosystems will or can be seen as important in terms of freshwater reforms even though they may be highly valued by a local community.

The water reforms are about maintaining and enhancing degraded (over-allocated in terms of quantity and quality) systems, yet the removal of 7(f) means there will be no compelling reason to do that.

The proposed freshwater reforms are unlikely to be successful unless the matters proposed for removal from section 7 of the RMAct are restored and given priority.

2. Statement: Water is not always used efficiently or for its highest value use

Value is not only financial value. Economic value is a far more complex equation. Maintaining and enhancing the natural character and preserving indigenous flora and fauna and contact recreation (such as swimming, kayaking, enjoyment of amenity) may not have a readily quantifiable financial value within each region, but they are essential components of the economy. Freshwater is essential natural capital, vital to New Zealand’s wealth. Good governance practice should preserve and enhance it rather than yield to short-term demands and support for activities which run down that capital. Freshwater is essential for the physical and mental well-being of New Zealand citizens which enhances their ability to contribute to the economy through work and avoid demands on the health system. It is noted that the RMAct is values-based decision-making and includes non-economic values.

3. Reform 3: A National Objectives Framework

The NZCA supports the concept of a national objectives framework. However, the numbers need to be in place prior to the commencement of any catchment-based collaborative processes and their selection needs stringent peer review with underlying assumptions clearly identified to instil confidence. The “attributes to be managed” should be based on the well-established ANZEEC Guidelines[1]. This would avoid the inevitable renegotiations of water body standards and bottom lines through the collaborative processes. It should also speed up the whole process and get improvement in the nation’s water bodies in a more timely manner.

4. Reform 5: Improving the process for Water Conservation Orders

The proposed reforms downgrade the significance of Water Conservation Orders (WCOs). WCOs are meant to be about nationally significant water bodies. Regional Councils have a regional focus, not a national one. They are therefore not the appropriate organisations to oversee applications or amendments of national significance. History shows that regional councils have not been great supporters of WCOs, as they view them as removing some of their powers to manage water bodies. WCOs have been the only “bottom line” setting to date to be put in place in some regions and have provided much needed protection for many nationally important water bodies that would have had no protection under the non-mandatory regional Water Plans.

For the same reasons it is worrying that regional councils will have a role regarding WCO amendments.

A high degree of independence for the WCO processes needs to be retained. The NZCA supports the role of the Environment Court in the WCO process as it is at present. The Environment Court has the capability to make impartial decisions and the wealth of case law it has developed informs decision-making and engenders confidence in the public.

Other specific comments

a. The path to reform: page 8 sixth paragraph

The NZCA supports the setting of national objectives. However, how well these objectives will work and what they may achieve depends upon what the objectives are. Objectives should be outcome focussed. There is little discussion or analysis in the report of the key issues of protecting in-stream values. To protect in-stream values requires knowledge of what these values are, which species are present and what their water flow, quality and other requirements are. Do we know enough about the species involved to make robust decisions? These decisions will be critical for the species that depend upon New Zealand rivers and other water bodies for their continued existence. Examples include black fronted terns and black billed gulls.

b. The planned package of reforms: page 10 Immediate reforms table

Adopting a collaborative approach may be a good approach but the NZCA does not support this being “partnered” with a limitation of appeal rights. Unless these processes are very carefully designed, inclusive, well-informed and unbiased, important considerations can be neglected. Appeal rights need to be retained to ensure sound management decisions are made.

c. Today’s challenges: page 13 Water quality is declining….

It is regrettable that the text of this section is based on information to 2007 only. Good policy decisions depend on sound knowledge of what is happening. Anecdotal and media reports over the intervening period indicate that there is a growing public concern about declining water quality due to an intensification of land use, often in naturally dry areas where that land use would be unsustainable without irrigation.

d. Today’s challenges: page 16 Water is over-allocated in some places

Over-allocation is not only a concern for the natural environment. It is also detrimental to other uses and values of water; including amenity, cultural, recreational and productive values.

e. Today’s challenges: page 17 Water is over-allocated in some places Figure 2

Figure 2 appears to show that there are major over-allocation concerns in a relatively few regions; namely Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough, Canterbury and Otago. There may be limitations in adopting a national approach because what is best for the country as a whole or for many regions may not be optimal in these regions.

f. The future of freshwater: page 21 Transparent and adaptive management systems are in place.

The first paragraph refers to “all users should play their part”. There are key stakeholders involved with water management, including statutory bodies and organisations, who are not “users”. This statement should be amended to take away any inference that the process of water management is focussed solely on water users.

g. Quality decision making page 26

The proposals about appeal rights are of concern. A hearing panel may not have made the right decisions and parties that should have been involved may not have been. These proposals may make arguing in-stream values more difficult.

h. A National Objectives Framework: page 29

“Require all water bodies meet the minimum state for ecosystem health and human health for secondary contact, effectively establishing some national bottom lines”. Bottom lines are minimum thresholds. Bottom lines are not acceptable objectives. Objectives should be framed to achieve measureable outcomes.

Many small water bodies have important values as habitat. Some regions, such as Tasman, Marlborough, coastal Otago and Southland have numerous small water bodies with important values. These water bodies are especially vulnerable to cumulative effects, Many New Zealand fish species are diadromous. An essential aspect of life-supporting capacity accordingly is fish passage which can be compromised by physical barriers, reduced flows or degraded water quality.

i. Reform 6: page 38 Freshwater accounting systems

“These would not require any additional measuring beyond that required by the National Environmental Standards for water measuring”.

The NZCA is concerned about the cumulative effects of small takes and takes that are not required to be measured or reported on. The report says that “if necessary, in the longer term, the Government may develop standard approaches and require councils to use them”. There could, therefore, be a range of processes used to estimate unmeasured take which the NZCA considers unacceptable, not only because it is inefficient but because there would be no common basis for comparison across regions and accumulation of data into a national set.

Together with requirements to provide information/data from water users, there should also be a requirement for analysis of the data and what it means. Informed decision-making requires knowledge not only of water volumes but also on what values are present and how they are faring under a modified regime. The NZCA would like to see indicators in the accounting systems as a proxy for healthy ecological functioning.

j. Reform 8: pages 40 and 43 Specification of permits

(b) The NZCA is bemused by the content of this sub-section. It appears to berate councils for taking a precautionary approach to water allocation when they think that a catchment is close to fully allocated, and threatens them with central government intervention if they do not abandon that caution. This is not consistent with the other recommendations concerning over-allocation and does not fit well with much of the rest of the report.

Page 43 explains the apparently confused approach referred to in the previous paragraph by proposing a dispensation from sound water management for large scale, long term-infrastructure.

The NZCA supports a precautionary approach to water allocation and short-term allocations are a legitimate tool which should not be over-ridden by central government. It opposes both the minimum permit term of 20 years and the higher than 35 years permit proposals.

k. Reform 8: page 41 Dealing with unauthorised takes

Many takes do not require permits and these are discussed on page 42. The RMAct generally does not address cumulative effects well, especially in considering resource consents and in permitted activity rules. “Unauthorised takes” should also include takes that exceed allocation limits or volumes. Some councils have not taken adequate steps to ensure compliance with resource consent and plan rules or have apparently decided it is simply too hard or politically unpalatable to effectively monitor and enforce compliance with these.

l. Reform 8: page 42 Managing takes that do not require water permits

The document, rightly, notes people may take water for domestic use and for drinking water for their animals provided it does not or is unlikely to have an adverse effect on the environment. Some plan provisions leave out the second part of this provision in permitted activity rules and allow water takes below set volumes without consideration of effects. This means these rules may not adequately address cumulative effects or small takes from small water bodies. The provisions also tend not to have rationing or restrictions at times of low flows when maintaining surface water flows in particularly important.


The NZCA supports reforms that deliver sustainable management of freshwater including maintaining the ecological, cultural and recreational values of each waterbody.


Dr Kay Booth



[1] Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality (known in New Zealand as the “ANZECC guidelines”)

back to top

Back to top