Reviews coming in on new policy for freshwater management

By Waiology 11/07/2014

By Daniel Collins

The Government recently released the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (2014). The policy provides the most comprehensive instructions to regional councils yet on how our freshwaters – rivers, lakes, wetlands, and aquifers – are to be managed. Amendments made in the new policy include numerical thresholds and bottom-lines for a range of water quality attributes in order to meet human and ecosystem health objectives (referred to as the National Objectives Framework, NOF). This was a key recommendation of the Land and Water Forum.

Reception of the new policy has been mixed, with freshwater scientists and stakeholders alike seeing improvements and shortcomings. To read the various comments to date, see the Government press release, the Science Media Centre’s collation of scientist comments, and the press releases from Dairy NZ, the Environment Defence Society, Forest and Bird NZ, Irrigation NZ, and the NZ Planning Institute. Their positive and negative feedback is summarised below, though more public statements are likely in the future.

Positive feedback Negative feedback

  • Greater transparency and consistency
  • The NOF was developed with the input of over 60 scientists
  • Tangata whenua values are recognised more explicitly
  • Stronger links between freshwater and coastal waters
  • All water bodies must be managed (rivers, lakes, aquifers, wetlands)
  • More guidance on monitoring plans and accounting systems
  • An earlier deadline for regional councils to meet the NPS-FM requirements
  • An independent review of the implementation and effectiveness of the NPS-FM will be conducted by 1 July 2016
  • The “maintain and improve” clause means that there cannot be a slide to the lowest band in the NOF
  • Exemptions from bottom lines have been tightened
  • Strengthened recognition of the links between freshwater and coastal systems

  • No management framework is provided for wetlands, estuaries or groundwater
  • No water quality objectives are provided for water temperature, pH, sedimentation, invertebrates, fish, low flows, or toxicants other than nitrate and ammonia
  • Bottom lines based on nitrate toxicity are insufficient to protect against chronic ecological effects
  • The objectives for dissolved oxygen only apply downstream of pollution point sources, not everywhere
  • The bottom line for human health provisions only allows for wading or boating (“secondary contact”), not swimming
  • No guidance is offered on the nitrogen and phosphorous limits required to prevent nuisance algal growth in rivers
  • Freshwater management units are not defined
  • No guidance on how overall changes to water quality are to be quantified

Among the new challenges thus become identifying which of the negative criticisms are simply misunderstandings, which fall on regional councils to resolve in their limit-setting process, which criticisms should indeed be remedied, and what policy or scientific remedies should be adopted. As Paul Reynolds, Ministry for the Environment, wrote last year, the development of this policy is deeply indebted to on-going scientific input. Implementing the NPS-FM to meet community needs will take further input from the scientific community. And as Clive Howard-Williams, Chief Scientist for Freshwater and Estuaries at NIWA, commented in relation to the recent policy announcement:

“The NPS-FM and the challenges it provides in demanding regional councils set freshwater quality limits is providing a spur to freshwater scientists to provide the evidence base for implementation of the policy.”

Dr Daniel Collins is a hydrologist and water resources scientist at NIWA.