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By Ned Norton and Helen Rouse

WaterGovernanceWaiology2013In water resource management under the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS) (2011), limit setting refers to the process of defining the amount of the resource that is available for use (in terms of both quantity and quality) while still meeting defined freshwater environment outcomes. A collaborative approach to setting limits for managing water resources has been promulgated in the Land and Water Forum reports and is being attempted in some parts of the country, including in Canterbury where the collaborative approach is also a feature of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.

The collaborative approach to limit setting requires that scientists provide information on the future consequences of limit options for environmental, cultural, social and economic values, so that informed community debate can occur and decisions on limits can be made. While current knowledge allows many consequences of resource use to be readily predicted, most scientists would share the view that research in this area needs strengthening to better predict all the effects of water takes and point and diffuse discharges. However the NPS requires that freshwater objectives and associated limits be set in regional plans in a timely manner, despite uncertain knowledge, recognising that advancing knowledge will lead to refinement of limits in future.

In this context, predicting some of the consequences of limit options can be an uncomfortable role for scientists for the following reasons:

  • Scientists are trained, for good reason, to be inherently conservative about drawing conclusions in haste and in the face of uncertainty;
  • In some places there are serious consequences of limit setting decisions for multiple, sometimes conflicting, values (e.g. environmental, economic, social, cultural);
  • Scientists in collaborative processes come face to face with the communities affected – people with livelihoods as well as social and cultural values at risk;
  • Scientists are required to stay objective in the face of sometimes emotional discussions.

The discomfort for scientists increases significantly where there is intense demand for resource use and limit options have serious consequences for conflicting values. Nonetheless, science is critical for well informed decisions. The challenge therefore is to communicate complex science information, including uncertainties, credibly and accessibly for a wide community audience.

Our observations from experience to date suggest that the following elements are required for the evolving role of scientists in collaborative limit setting processes today. Scientists must:

  1. Recognise the ‘expert witness’ science role
  2. Inform (but not attempt to make) decisions
  3. Walk in the communities’ shoes to develop perspective beyond the technical
  4. Use crisp visual communication tools to translate science for the community
  5. Simplify technical material to tell a story that makes sense for decision-making
  6. Communicate uncertainty and ways to manage it
  7. Do all of this while presenting good science and retaining credibility.

Further detail can be seen in our presentation to the Freshwater Sciences Society Conference, December 2012. We are actively working to improve the effectiveness of freshwater science at the science-policy interface in our research under the Management of Cumulative Effects of Stressors on Aquatic Ecosystems Programme, funded by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.


Ned Norton is a water resource management consultant working part time for NIWA and part time assisting Environment Canterbury with collaborative limit setting processes. Dr Helen Rouse is a resource management consultant and group manager of the Freshwater Ecology group at NIWA Christchurch.