By Brendan Moyle 01/06/2017


Freshwater policy in New Zealand is undergoing a lot of debate.   Unfortunately with all the hyperbole and claims, it can be difficult to determine what it is that is being debated.  With the creation of the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (NPS-FM for those that prefer abbreviations), Central Government has taken on a more active role.  This also has created confusion over the roles of the different parties.  This blog hopefully, gives a brief precis as 10 questions, that can help explain it better.

1. Whose Job Is It Anyway?

The passage of the Resource Management Act (1991), established the statutory responsibilities for managing freshwater bodies are regional authorities (local government).  These are responsible for issuing consents to use water and managing water quality.  In principle this balances economic, social, environmental and cultural values.  Ideally this would sustain water quality.

There are some exceptions.  The Ministry of Health has a limited role with drinking water quality.  Water Conservation orders can also be issued from Central Government to protect against some abuses.

Even after the NPS-FM was set up in 2014, the statutory responsibility for freshwater remains with regional authorities. That’s what the Resource Management Act (RMA) mandates.

2. What Motivated Central Government’s Interest?

Basically water-quality was not showing much improvement. Most freshwater bodies were showing no change. Some had deteriorated. Some had improved. In 2006 the (Labour) Minister for the Environment set up a Board of Inquiry. This was to determine whether a National Policy Statement (pursuant to Section 55 of the RMA) was merited.

Figure 1: Lake Water Quality Showed Little Change

The Board of Inquiry concluded its public consultation and provided a report in 2010. This basically said yes, there should be a National Policy on freshwater management.  The report however, gave little guidance on measuring the different goals.  Thus, a human health goal was proposed, but no good metrics were provided to tell if we were succeeding. The (National) government  decided to adopt the NPS, and after more consultation, generated the NPS-FP 2014.

3. What is the  NPS-FP 2014?

This National Policy Statement produced actual bottom lines for water quality, and gave Regional Authorities a deadline to achieve them.  These bottom lines were established with guidance from the Land and Water Forum.  This Forum includes many stakeholders including scientific organisations.

An example of such a bottom line is phosphorus in lakes.  The bottom line is a median value of 50 mg per cubic metre.  This is the bottom margin of a C grade.  A and B grade lakes are lower than this median. D grade (fail) lakes, have more than 50mg.  This system of ranking all freshwater on an A, B, C and D scale is important. It was done for all the bottom lines. This is a system of grading everything on 4 levels, with the bottom lines at the bottom of the C grade.

The NPS-FM 2014 requires Regional Authorities to meet these national bottom lines by 2025.  Again, it is not the Central Government’s role to achieve these bottom lines.  The RMA rules that out.  Nonetheless, Central Government has provided a lot of funding to try to help other parties achieve these goals.

Figure 2: Freshwater Projects

Source: Ministry for the Environment

4. How good was the NPS-FM 2014?

Like any policy developed by consultation and compromise, it had a mixture of features.  On the plus side, it gave clear guidance to Regional Authorities on what the targets were.  It set up a review for 2016. And it also had a maintain-and-improve rule.  In other words, slippage was not permitted.  A river say, that scored as an A grade for nitrate, was not allowed to deteriorate to a B or C. Freshwater could only improve.

One the minus side, the bottom lines only applied to lakes and rivers. Treatment of estuaries and wetlands was thus problematic. Freshwater invertebrates were also not included in any of the bottom lines.

There is also no restriction on Regional Authorities trying to do better than the NPS-FM. They can include any metrics not part of the NPS-FM.  The bottom lines aren’t exclusive nor targets. They’re floors we’re not supposed to drop below.

Also, the point of a national policy is to deal with water quality issues that are distributed nationally. There may be pressing local water quality issues that aren’t widely distributed.  Thermal pollution may be a problem in some sites, but if it isn’t national in scope, it doesn’t make the cut.

5. What Happened After the 2016 Review?

Basically three things of importance. Macroinvertebrates would be included in the national bottom lines. Stock (cows, sheep, deer etc) would be excluded from freshwater under a new piece of legislation (the proposed Resource Legislation Amendment Bill). And the Clean Water Package was proposed to get lakes and rivers to a “swimmable” standard.

6. What Does Swimmable Mean?

Good question.  Basically it means the predicted incidence of illness is low enough to make swimming safe.  The metric for this is the amount of bacteria (E. coli) found in the water.  The risk rises substantially between 540 E. coli per 100 ml of water, and 1000 E. coli.

Given E. coli is ubiquitous, it is a good national metric for water quality. There may still however, be local aspects that hinder swimming. But as noted above, problems restricted to a few local sites don’t work as national metrics.

Also the swimmable target is only intended for rivers and lakes you can potentially swim in.  It does not include shallow or small freshwater bodies that are just, too small, to swim in. Pretty much if you can’t put your head underwater, it doesn’t count.

7. How is the risk of E. coli distributed?

E. coli basically has the highest counts in rivers and lakes that are close to densely populated areas, or intensive pastoral grazing.  It’s found in the gut of warm-blooded animals. That includes humans, cows and ducks.  The excreta of such animals gets into the water. In many cities it spikes after heavy rain, as storm drains and over-flowing sewers carry more wastes into the water.

Figure 3: Lucas Creek in Auckland’s Albany Area has high E. coli counts

Source: Brendan Moyle

New Zealand however, has a relatively high proportion of E. coli from non-human sources.  That’s a little important because E. coli comes in many varieties and tend to specialise for different species. That makes working out the actual risk of illness harder, as you are a bit less likely to get ill from E. coli from different species.

Also because it is a living organism, its numbers can vary greatly over a short space of time. This means control is based on two main metrics. The first is the average E. coli count in the water (usually the median).  The second is the number of times it passes an upper threshold.

8. Can we get rid of E. coli?

Well, if we’re prepared to shoot all the ducks and rails in NZ and chlorinate our rivers, as well as completely control human and farm wastes, maybe. So it’s not really an option. Fresh water bodies can’t be made as clean as your local swimming pool.

9. Are proposed E. coli standards looser than before?

This one issue has resulted in a lot of media attention and debate.  It turns out, that it is not a straightforward question to ask.

It is stricter in the sense, of mandating lower E.coli counts for most rivers and lakes.  The NPS-FM in 2014 never had a bottom line for swimming. It had a recreational bottom line. This was 1000 E. coli per 100 ml. So the idea was it was safe to wade in, or boat on. Regional authorities were not mandated to make lakes and rivers swimmable. In this sense, any push to swimmable is stricter.

It is less strict in the sense of the 540 E. coli count.  The NPS-FM has a minimum acceptable standard for swimming that corresponded to an estimated “less than 5% risk of illness”. The Clean Water Package allows for this 540 E. coli threshold to be breached more frequently.

It is more strict in the sense of the median E. coli count. The median is one way to measure the average number of  E. coli in a sample. This has basically been halved. So the average number of E. coli has to get lower, but it can breach the upper limit more often.

This is why a recent NIWA report on the new standards said the answer to this question is yes and no.  It’s hard to compare because the metrics aren’t strictly comparable. We’ve gone from a recreational standard for water that had one measure of swimmability, to a swimming standard that has five grades, and has adjusted how E. coli has counted.

Strictly speaking we can’t tell just by looking at the tables.  Overall, all metrics of swimmability, whether based on European, US or NZ standards, are based on the various ways we maintain E. coli counts below 540 per 100 ml.

10. What about the Freshwater outside the Clean Water Package?

While these bodies don’t have to meet the swimmability standards, they still have to meet the recreational standard. They’re not allowed to become a teeming bacterial soup of E. coli.

Also, the maintain and improve condition means that rivers or lakes that are currently A grade for swimming, are not allowed to deteriorate to C.


Obviously this is not an exhaustive discussion of water quality policy in NZ.  Nonetheless, the key points are that there was a significant shift in freshwater management in 2014.  The goal of improving water quality is explicit.  Nonetheless, from a strictly environmental perspective the NPS-FM is not flawless. From a policy perspective, it seems to try to satisfy concerns over a range of stake-holders.

0 Responses to “The Beginner’s Guide to Freshwater Policy in NZ”

  • What’s often wilfully overlooked in the NPS-FM too is that the few national bottom lines are just that – absolute minimum standards. The NPS-FM provides a process for requiring regional councils to set water quality limits (standards) for their catchments at higher levels than those bottom lines. Public complaints about the minimum standards having the effect of dragging down water quality everywhere are just plain wrong.

    • Thanks- yes, I agree completely. The bottom-lines are often misrepresented as targets. As you note, the process is really about ratcheting water-quality well clear of these.

  • Awesome piece Brendan, great to read a balanced take on both the need to change and the policy already introduced creating the potential to do that (i.e., national bottom-lines are not able to be degraded to and the NOF is not intended to be exhaustive, now or probably ever given continued advances in freshwater ecology should call for ongoing changes therein). Noted a minor point that the 2025 deadline for proposed limits or targets on water quality does not require national bottom-lines to be met by 2025, but that where not met, a regional plan is in place showing how they will be, including by when and supported by regular reporting on progress to achieving that target (or an exception made, which hopefully will be rare). Again, well done!

    • Thanks for those kind comments Tom. You are correct on the deadline. That was one of the issues I pondered going into more detail. The deadline is ‘fuzzy’ but in principle, 2025 is the ideal. I think the exceptions get an extension until 2030. I share your wish that they will be rare.

      I also pondered mentioning the Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord (2013). It seems to be motivating improvements in farming practice and compliance.