Overcoming obstacles to setting water quality limits

By Waiology 22/11/2013 2


By Ned Norton and Helen Rouse

Un-muddying the Waters : Waiology : Oct-Dec 2013In the previous Waiology series on Water governance, we referred to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPSFM) (2011) requirement to set limits for water quantity and quality. So, how are councils getting on with limit-setting?

In May 2012 we surveyed planners for regional councils to find out how their current regional plans measure up against the NPSFM requirements to set limits, and found that 1 of 14 respondents said their current plan meets NPSFM requirements, 8 of 14 said their plan met requirements to some extent, and 5 of 14 said their plan did not meet NPSFM requirements.

Our survey also identified a number of potential obstacles that make limit-setting difficult. Some of the most common obstacles were costs (time,staff), availability of catchment-specific data, understanding existing/baseline conditions, balancing instream and out-of-stream values, lack of support for plan process (political or council staff), lack of clear process for getting parties together/getting agreement, and lack of understanding of (and difficulty communicating) complex issues and value trade-offs.

Solutions to these obstacles can be grouped into regulatory, non-regulatory and ‘other’ categories. Examples include national policy instruments, guidance documents, and improved information flow amongst researchers, practitioners, and communities. Suggestions made by the Land and Water Forum are being acted on by central government in the Freshwater reforms 2013 and beyond workstream, which will address to some extent the obstacles that can be solved with regulatory tools and guidelines. Sharing good practice and effectively communicating science are other avenues that many players can assist with. How these can be achieved is an important focus for our research.

A key challenge in setting limits for water quality associated with diffuse-source contaminants lies in being transparent about the links between desired outcomes (environmental, social, cultural, economic), the concentration of a contaminant in a waterbody (e.g. nitrogen, N), the associated total contaminant load limit (e.g. tonnes N/yr), and the allocation of the load limit amongst dischargers at a property level (e.g. kg N/ha/yr). Such transparency demonstrates that choices about outcomes come with consequences for limits and allocation, and vice versa. A related challenge lies in making the difficult decisions around the level to which multiple conflicting outcomes will be met, thus establishing what limits will be set. To see how councils are faring now with limit-setting generally and with this challenge in particular, we have been looking at some case studies to examine current progress.

For example, in Canterbury the Canterbury Water Management Strategy is driving a collaborative approach to limit-setting, which is now an option encouraged under the central government freshwater reforms. Community-based Zone Committees consider scenarios for water quantity and quality limits, explore the consequences of these scenarios with community involvement, and then decide on a ‘solution package’ containing a mix of limits and other regulatory and non-regulatory on-the-ground solutions that best meet the Committee’s suite of goals. Experience to date has shown, at least in heavily utilised catchments, that such decisions require iteration as the difficulty of achieving aspirational outcomes (environmental and economic) becomes clearer during the process. These processes have tended to arrive at solutions that acknowledge the need for significant time to attain all desired outcomes.

The collaborative, zone-based approach has been used to date in the Hurunui-Waiau, Selwyn Waihora, Hinds Plains, and South Canterbury Coastal Streams zones, and continues to evolve and improve as lessons are learned by all. The approach has required creative use of science tools (including models) and careful attention to communication techniques. It has also become critical to define Good Management Practice (GMP) in terms of on-the-ground practices that can be related to N losses in kg/ha/yr. Significant collaborative progress has been made by a Primary Sector group, Ngai Tahu and ECan, leading to an agreed limits framework for the Selwyn Waihora zone (see Irrigation New Zealand article). All the primary sector bodies have also committed to a multi-agency project that will define agreed GMP in kg/ha/yr across all landuse, soil and climate types in Canterbury by 2015.

These Canterbury case studies have all had their ups and downs, but there are undeniably positive signs of progress towards setting durable water quality limits via collaborative processes, compared to more adversarial and pessimistic times just a few years ago.


Ned Norton is a water resource management consultant working part time for NIWA and part time assisting Environment Canterbury. Dr Helen Rouse is a resource management scientist at NIWA.

The topics discussed above are part of our research under the Management of Cumulative Effects of Stressors on Aquatic Ecosystems project, funded by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.


2 Responses to “Overcoming obstacles to setting water quality limits”

  • Here in Southland some admire Canterbury for taking the lead. Our council response has been to wait for guidance on what collaboration is. In my view it’s a sorry state of affairs, that the Council is so dissociated from collaboration, it’s frightened of taking the first step. Unfortunately the process of ‘holding the line’ is likely to undermine the collaboration process before it is started. Some of the ‘holding the line’ policies have been met with animosity and that will no doubt be linked to the new concept of W&L2020.

    Personally, I want the council to get out there and start building relationships, but there is an apparent fear. It’s frustrating for me to watch.