Testing the waters: Government sets out freshwater agenda

The Government has outlined a suite of proposals for freshwater reform over the next two years in a recently-released document called Essential Freshwater: Healthy Water, Fairly Allocated (available here). The proposed reform will have important implications for the full range of freshwater stakeholders. 

Reform objectives

Essential Freshwater sets out the following three key objectives:

  1. Stopping further degradation and loss – taking actions to stop the decline of the country’s freshwater resources, waterways and ecosystems and to start achieving improvements so that water quality is materially improving within five years.

  2. Reversing past damage – promoting restoration of freshwater resources, waterways and ecosystems to a healthy state within a generation.

  3. Addressing water allocation issues – taking steps to achieve fair and efficient allocation of freshwater and nutrient discharges, taking into account all interests (including those of Māori, and of existing and future users).

Workstreams and timeframes

The Essential Freshwater work programme aims to achieve the above objectives through the six workstreams summarised below:





Amendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management

Areas being considered include:

·     provision of greater direction regarding how councils must set limits on resource use

·     better protection for wetlands and sensitive downstream environments (e.g. estuaries)

·     adjustments to implementation timeframes

·     how to better provide for ecosystem health

·     potential new attributes – sediment, copper and zinc, and dissolved oxygen

·     policy regarding at-risk catchments

·     resolving exceptions to national bottom lines

Public consultation is proposed to be undertaken in 2019, with an amended NPS to be in force by 2020


A new National Environmental Standard for Freshwater Management

Areas being considered include:

·     direction for the review of existing consents

·     a default regime for ecological flow and levels where none are set, and how minimum flows apply to existing consents

·     mechanisms for managing intensification, including targeting at-risk catchments

·     preventing additional loss of wetlands and urban streams

·     direction around the use of good management practices such as stock exclusion and riparian management

·     direction on nutrient allocation

·     rules to control activities such as intensive winter grazing, hill country cropping, and feedlots

Public consultation is proposed to be undertaken in 2019, with a new NES to be in force by 2020


Amendments to the RMA

Amendments are being considered to:

·     “better enable” regional councils to review consents

·     more quickly implement water quality and quantity limits as required in the Freshwater NPS

·     strengthen enforcement tools in order to improve compliance

Amendments to be introduced in late 2018 or early 2019


Engagement and developing options for allocating water resources

The two main issues of focus include:

·     discharges of contaminants (including nutrients, sediment, and microbial pathogens)

·     water takes (authorities to take and use water)

Options will be consulted on/developed in 2019 and 2020

At-risk catchments

Identification of, and action/investment in, at-risk catchments

Areas being considered include:

·     the need for regulatory intervention

·     targeting of erosion risk for government funds (including the One Billion Trees programme)

·     identification of existing restoration projects for scaling up

·     support for actions by councils, Māori, NGOs, community groups, and industry

A report to the Government with recommendations is proposed by the end of 2018

Future framework

Ongoing policy development, including:

·     extending good practice across farms, forests, and urban water management

·     investment in solutions, and advice/tools to support decision-making

·     improved and more consistent measurement and monitoring

·     increased support for councils

The Essential Freshwater work programme will be delivered jointly by a cross-government task force led by the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry for Primary Industries. The Government states it is intending to bring together experts and stakeholders to provide policy advice/input on how best to achieve the above freshwater objectives.


Essential Freshwater contains summary information regarding the full spectrum of the Government’s proposed freshwater initiatives. Goals include to “create a proper legacy for future generations by developing a fair and enduring system for sustainably managing this precious resource” and to achieve “economic growth within environmental limits”; and the Government states that it is “committed to working inclusively to find solutions that are enduring and practical”. While these are laudable aims, it remains to be seen how the glossy pages of Essential Freshwater translate – through the political process – into concrete policy, law, action, and results. Freshwater management is notoriously complex, challenging, and emotive. While the Government states that “it is now time to make rapid progress towards substantial decisions”, the reform outlined in Essential Freshwater is largely characterised by proposals to undertake more scoping and engagement, as opposed to specific policy plans.

Staying on top of the various Essential Freshwater workstreams as they progress will be important for all those with interests in freshwater.

Posted on October 16, 2018 .