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By Steve Couper

WaterGovernanceWaiology2013Deteriorating water quality is consistently rated by many New Zealanders as being their number one environmental concern. Their concern is well placed. Some of our lowland waterways are now so badly polluted that the ‘clean green’ brand we promote is being actively challenged.

The evidence for declining environmental health in these waterways is strong. Monitoring 77 sites along 35 rivers, the National River Water Quality Network (NRWQN) shows an overall decline in water quality since its inception in 1989. While the bulk of this deterioration has been caused by diffuse pollution from intensification of agricultural land use, the waterways running through our urban environments are the most degraded. Urban dwellers are in no position to point the finger at “dirty dairying.”

The purpose of the Resource Management Act is set out in section 5. It’s a simple one line statement – “to promote sustainable management of natural and physical resources.” Enacted in 1991 the Acts’ life almost exactly spans and that of the National River Water Quality Network and the second phase expansion of the national dairy herd.

It is not achieving its statutory purpose of water.

Is it the Act itself that isn’t fit for purpose or the way it is being administered, or both? I think that both can be fingered, but that more will be required to achieve a coherent system for governance of water in New Zealand.

Firstly, is the Act itself fit for purpose?

Applying the effects-based philosophy of the Act on a case-by-case basis that considers social, cultural and economic factors alongside environmental considerations often creates conflicting views and inconsistencies across catchments and regions. While this approach may be appropriate for urban development, it isn’t appropriate for water management, where environmental protection conditions should be science-based. We’ve become hooked up on processes rather than the substance of decision making on resource management.

Requiring the setting of, and working within, environmental bottom lines for water quality and quantity on a catchment by catchment basis, as recommended by the Land and Water Forum, will potentially help alleviate this problem.

Secondly, is the administration of the Act to blame?

New Zealand runs a devolved, regionally based environmental regulatory regime. 11 regional councils along with six unitary authorities administer the Act. Given the limited water science and technical capacity in NZ, spreading that resource across 17 councils places it thinly on the ground. It is not surprising therefore that some authorities have taken decades to put in place regional plans for water.

Neither should it be surprising that there is:

  • inconsistency in the way the Act and associated policies are developed and applied geographically;
  • inconsistency with consent conditions and water quality limits; and
  • inconsistency with policing and regulating those who breach limits.

What is the point of setting standards that are required to protect the environment if regulators are not willing or able to police them? What message does this send to our water service providers and wet industries? Rightfully, the dairy sector is becoming increasingly vocal about differing compliance and enforcement standards being applied to their sector (c.f. municipal water service providers).

So the way the Act is being administered is contributing to the problem.

In 2008 Water New Zealand convened the Turnbull Group (PDF), to come up with a better way of governing water. The Group recommended scrapping regional environmentally based regulation, and centralising it to the (at that time yet to be formed) centralised Environmental Protection Authority. It saw adequate science and technical capacity as being a key to effective resource management. Aggregating this capacity into an Environmental Protection Authority was advocated. It was envisaged that the Authority would have regional offices to properly inform local decision making.

The Turnbull Group went further. It recognised that water policy needed to be managed in an integrative and collaborative way. At that time there were nine central agencies with responsibilities for aspects of water policy, but none were in overall charge. It therefore recommended the establishment of a Water Commission to provide high level leadership and oversight of policy formulation and implementation.

It is history now that regional councils survived at the Land and Water Forum. A water reform directorate has been formed in the MfE with staff on secondment from various Ministries. Its role is to coordinate cross-agency water policy input into reform of the Resource Management Act. Will the directorate be maintained beyond the current RMA reform round, to coordinate central water policy generally? I hope so.

The Land and Water Forum recommended setting and enforcing catchment based limits on water quality and quantity. This is strongly supported by the Government in its recent discussion document on water reform ‘Freshwater reform 2013 and beyond.’ Will regional councils have the science, technical and administrative capacity to set and properly enforce these proposals? Or will we need to have a third crack at fixing water governance in New Zealand?


Steve Couper is the President of Water New Zealand. The views expressed in this article are personal, and do not represent those of Water New Zealand.