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Freshwater action plan - Expert Reaction Update

Updated with new comments.

The Government has released an Action Plan for Healthy Waterways, which aims to restore rivers and lakes within a generation.

The plan proposes new requirements to improve freshwater including setting higher standards for swimmability in summer, interim controls on land intensification and a higher bar on ecosystem health.

The SMC gathered expert comments on the plan, which has been released for public consultation. Today's full range of comments are available on our website. Further comments will be sent as they are received.

New comment
Dr Julia Talbot-Jones, lecturer, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

"Today’s announcement by the Government regarding freshwater holds promise. Science and te mana o te wai are front and centre, and funding for the transition provided. These are good things and the government should be commended for prioritising these aspects.

"A few red flags do emerge, however. First, freshwater quality is clearly the priority, while the can for freshwater allocation has been kicked down the road without a timeline. Because limited water supply intensifies issues concerning water quality (e.g. low water levels could lead to warmer stream temperatures that contribute to increased algal growth etc), failing to adopt an integrated policy approach to quality and quantity risks marginalising the net benefits of freshwater policy reform.

"Second, the discussion document fails to outline how issues of capacity and enforcement at local government level are to be addressed. Although attention is given to the importance of monitoring, missing from the discussion is the fact that local government actually has to analyse the data it collects in order to understand the range of quality and quantity issues, and enforce indiscretions. As numerous reports have shown, both of these elements are currently missing from many local government processes.

"Third, suggested policy pathways for implementing the NPS are weak. Guidance from central government, or preferably an independent water commission, is fundamental to ensuring that the policy tools used are the ones most likely to incentivise the desired behaviour change. Research shows that incentivising long term behaviour change requires local governments to design policy that prioritises longer-term efficacy over a policy's short-term acceptability.

"In New Zealand, this will be a challenge for local governments who will need the support of central government/the water commission, economists, scientists, and legal experts, to ensure that the ambitious target of ‘restoring’ waterways within a generation is able to be at least partially met."

Conflict of interest statement: Julia is an affiliate of Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.


New comment
Associate Professor Linda Te Aho (Ngāti Koroki Kahukura and Ngāti Mahuta), Associate Dean Māori at Te Piringa Faculty of Law, University of Waikato, comments:

"The freshwater crisis we face in Aotearoa New Zealand is complicated and multi-dimensional. The Government’s latest proposals in [this plan] reflect a genuine desire to effect measures of positive change before it is too late.

"The three objectives of the action plan demonstrate the determination to address particularly thorny issues: 'To stop further degradation of New Zealand’s freshwater resources and start making immediate improvements so that water quality is materially improving within five years; to reverse past damage to bring New Zealand’s freshwater resources, waterways and ecosystems to a healthy state within a generation; and to address water allocation issues having regard to all interests including Māori and existing and potential new users.'

"It will be pleasing for iwi leaders to see proposals for stronger mechanisms to give effect to Te Mana o te Wai, a lodestar concept they fought to have embedded in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater, and which places the health and wellbeing of waterways at the forefront of decision-making. The innovative proposition for a Freshwater Commission is of particular interest. Without wanting to detract from the good work of advisory groups such as Te Kahui Wai, the lack of mana ki te mana engagement with iwi leaders in accordance with Te Tiriti o Waitangi has been raised as a major concern about the process."

Conflict of interest statement: Linda is part of the research team funded by the NZ Law Foundation to explore the idea of a Freshwater Commission in more detail, and has also served as an advisor to iwi leaders on issues relating to freshwater law and governance.


New comment
Professor Troy Baisden, BOPRC Chair in Lake and Freshwater Sciences, University of Waikato, comments:

"Today’s announcements from the Essential Freshwater Programme appear to give effect to the Environment Minister’s commitment to reverse the decline of New Zealand’s iconic lakes and rivers. This delivery reflects the emergence of water as a significant issue in the last election, and increasing evidence including the recentEnvironment Aotearoa 2019 report, making it clear degradation needs to be addressed.

"A key driver for today’s policy announcements is that the perceived tradeoff between the farming industry and the environment makes little sense going forward. If we trade internationally on our reputation for a healthy environment, continued degradation of water fouls both the value of our main exports and our heritage. That’s progress, but the proposal is necessarily complex, reflecting that freshwater pollution has been allowed to get worse longer than it should.

"Some of the most compelling provisions finally draw a line where limits need to be set to prevent further slippage. Essentially, these include a halt to significant expansions of practices including dairy farming and irrigation, and limits on the use of nitrogen in some key catchments. The exclusion of larger grazing animals from water and wetlands will be greatly improved.

"The mechanisms of getting the provisions in place appears likely to be complicated and ad-hoc, but clearly reverses the main cause of delays. Here’s the reversal: rather than require regional councils to implement a National Policy Statement (NPS) by making changes to each regional plan, key changes are now implemented nationally, either through changes to the Resource Management Act itself, or through a binding National Environmental Statement (NES). In addition, where the new NPS requires region by region action, national limits on intensification will apply until regional plans have been amended to comply with the NPS.

"In short, this makes a halt to the worst forms of degradation the default, rather than an item on an underfunded to-do list. This increases the likelihood of stopping degradation, and having a sense of progress by the intended date of 2025. This will still be a challenging process, where levels of nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorous – causing decline of ecology in lakes and rivers can be set well above the national bottom line.

"Underpinning all the policies and rules is a need for science, information and the tools built from these to be an integral part of the process, making decisions that are ultimately determined by values. Some key processes for driving decisions in the policy document are still signalled as options. Seeing the scope of the documents and options to consider should bring home this is a democratic process, with many decisions to be made nationally and locally.

"One of the most intriguing options left open to consultation is whether Te Ao Māori perspectives previously incorporated as Te Mana o Te Wai will be given compulsory value related to Mahinga Kai (culturally significant food gathering practices), or will be given different consideration place-by-place by individual iwi and hapū.

"This could be a good place to focus, and see if we can put the values of Māori and Pakeha together, to ensure that the passionate voice of the farming community debates against a voice clearly representing our freshwater ecosystems – the fish, the kōura and the critters they eat. This is the first time we’ve had a NPS document that includes all the detailed pieces – measurable attributes – we need to use to keep aquatic life healthy. Now that we have all the pieces, we will still need to put them together through the upcoming consultation and years of implementation."

No conflict of interest.


New comment
Professor Richard McDowell, chief scientist, Our Land and Water, comments:

"The Government has outlined an extensive mix of policy directions, environmental standards, and voluntary actions that will improve our protection of fresh waters.

"The proposal is a distinctly New Zealand approach that recognises that we will not prosper unless the health and mauri of fresh water is protected.

"The proposed regulation of some farm practices such as fencing and grazing of winter forage crops goes some way towards correcting what was missing in existing policy documents. We will have to see the result of consultation and assessments of what’s practical to see if they go further. For example, we know the majority (77%) of contaminant loads come from small streams, but fencing them off may not be the most practical nor sensible when other mitigations in headwaters are probably more cost-effective. We also know that 10% of a farm in winter forage cropping contributes 30–40% of the nutrient load, but suspect that this proportion may be greater if winter forage cropping is practiced on floodplains.

"It’s encouraging to see regulation will be implemented (in part) through a mapped farm environment plan, while taking action across a whole catchment. We know that identifying critical source areas on a farm and targeting them with practices to mitigate contaminant loss is much (six to seven times) more cost-effective than an untargeted approach. We’ve also recently calculated that if all known mitigations are implemented nationally by 2035, we will reduce nutrient and sediment losses by 30% to 60%.

"The primary sectors have set a target of having farm environment plans in place before the Government’s proposed policy becomes mandatory. I would sound a note of caution though: these plans must be objective, quantitative, linked to catchment objectives, and auditable. If not, land owners and managers won’t have the information to know when and where to apply mitigations – or if they need to consider land use change, should the potential 30% to 60% reduction in contaminants still not be enough to achieve ‘good’ fresh water status."

No conflict of interest.


New comment
Iain White, Professor of Environmental Planning, University of Waikato, comments:

"There is a lot to like in the document. It's catchment wide and inter-generational, which better reflects the scale of the problem and the length of time it may take to transition to a more sustainable relationship. It also describes a shared responsibility to uphold Te Mana o te Wai – the health and wellbeing of water – which could help shift technical, managerial, debates on ‘quality’ towards more intrinsic values.

"However, as the document acknowledges, despite a wealth of science, tools and guidance, freshwater quality continues to decline. While a focus on shared responsibility reflects the reality of the situation, it also links to the practical political difficulties in aligning decision-making around a shared vision when this is such an intensely political issue.

"As such, the key questions will be around implementation and decision-making, particularly from a multi-decadal perspective. How ambitious will the freshwater management plans be? What is the nature of the economic support for transition? Or how do you define ‘healthy’? In this respect, I anticipate the power and oversight of the mooted independent Freshwater Commission will be hugely important in translating policy ambition to practical action."

No conflict of interest.


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