Water governance and the RMA

By Waiology 13/03/2013

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.

0 Responses to “Water governance and the RMA”

  • ​The issue of science and technical capacity in NZ is dear to my heart. Increasing this capacity was one of my personal motivations for setting up Waiology in the first place, and is part of my role on the executive board of the NZ Hydrological Society. It may be somewhat telling that I did not seek a PhD in NZ but went abroad. And so I have a question about both the provision and division of this capacity. If it is currently limited, spread across regional councils and unitary authorities as you say, how would centralisation change that, assuming we make use of the same scientist pool? And how much of the delay to realise management plans came down to this limited capacity and how much to other factors? Do we need more freshwater scientists? [Daniel Collins]

  • Steve,
    I am very concerned by your preamble. In it you recognise a link to the NIWA NRWQN data. The most recent summary report described in the link by Larned etal said the following:
    “A reasonable interpretation of these results is that among-class
    differences in water quality state developed before the 1996–2002 period, and current differences are relatively stable. If this is accurate, then recent changes in land-use practices, climate conditions, and other sources of anthropogenic and natural variability have had only minor effects on low-elevation stream water quality, or have occurred at scales too small to be detected by this large-scale study.”
    Based on this, your statement that concern is well placed seems wrong to me.

  • Hi Mr E. I should note that I added that particular link myself, as editor, so people would know what the NRWQN is. However, it is not the most up to date webpage. I draw your attention to the MFE website and state of the environment reports therein, e.g.,
    Ballantine and Davies-Collie (2009) (though I am pretty sure there is more recent analysis than that). In any case, one of the key findings reported was as follows:

    “There were strong increasing trends in four nutrients (total phosphorus, dissolved reactive phosphorus, oxidised nitrogen and total nitrogen). There are strong correlations between these trends and the percentage of catchment in pasture, which indicates deteriorating water quality is mainly attributable to expansion and intensification of pastoral agriculture.”

    A different conclusion, and based on more data, though I hesitate to make sweeping judgements based on only two short excerpts. [Daniel]

  • Daniel,
    Not a scientific paper. Not peer reviewed in a standard scientific manner. No reference to the use of a statistician. Wide use of Kendall trend analysis which can provide incorrect results if not used correctly.
    It is fair to say I would pay a lot more attention to these results if they were part of a scientific paper rather than report.

  • True and true. Many scientists would take issue with the third point, stats being an important tool of science. And, I agree, Kendall can be mis-applied, but I won’t weigh in on this one. I also pay more attention to peer reviewed material, though we need to understand that a lot of environmental analysis in NZ is not funded in such a way that peer reviewed articles are project outcomes.

    All that said, I’ll see about getting some people, more expert than myself, to write some pieces for Waiology on this very topic after the current series is over. [Daniel]

  • Tool of science yes. But do they all have a licence to drive the tool? I passed in the top 3 of 600 in statistics but would not dream of delivering my own stats for even the most basic trial design. I believe statistics is very much a specialist topic.
    When we fail to pass the test of independant peer review, bare minimum must be an expectation of independant statistical review. At least in my view.
    We desperately need more review of the NRWQN data. Desperately.