FAQ's - Water Programme of Action

  1. What is the Sustainable Water Programme of Action?

The Sustainable Water Programme of Action was established by the Government in 2003, to ensure that the country's freshwater resources are managed to best support New Zealand's future sustainable development. 

Jointly led by the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Sustainable Water Programme of Action has involved many government departments including the Department of Conservation, the Ministry of Economic Development, the Treasury, Te Puni Kokiri, and the Department of Internal Affairs. Local government representatives have also been involved, as well as a Māori reference group and a stakeholder reference group.

The programme is part of the Government's wider Sustainable Development Programme of Action, which also has energy, sustainable cities, and investing in child and youth development work strands.

  1. Why do we need the Sustainable Water Programme of Action?

We now need to recognise that water is not an unlimited resource and is one of the country’s most valuable assets which has to be managed effectively. 

In most parts of the country we are doing this pretty well, but there are areas like Canterbury, Rotorua and Taupo where there are significant water issues that need to be addressed. Many of these issues are simply an early indicator of an emerging trend nationally.

In New Zealand, there is an increasing demand for water for a range of uses. A recent example is the Waitaki catchment where interests in the river include hydroelectricity, irrigation, recreational, cultural and environmental. We want to have management systems that establish clear priorities for water use and provide for competing interests fairly and efficiently.

We are also experiencing drier conditions along the eastern coast areas of New Zealand, with less rainfall to recharge surface and groundwater systems. In some of these areas including Hawke’s Bay and Canterbury, there is high demand for water to support intensification of agricultural, horticultural and viticultural activities. 

While the quality of our water resources rates highly compared to other countries, we are experiencing increasing amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in our water bodies (in most cases lowland streams). For example, 60 per cent of our lakes are degraded.

This is often the unintentional consequence of rural and urban activities such as agriculture, subdivision, stormwater systems and run-off from roads. We need to take action now to prevent further decline in water quality in some water bodies, and to protect our pristine water bodies.

The Sustainable Water Programme of Action looks at all these issues from a nationwide perspective and this has never been done before. For the first time, we have a big picture, national approach to manage freshwater in New Zealand.

  1. What are the outcomes for the Programme?

The Government has identified three national outcomes for freshwater:

  • Improve the quality and efficient use of freshwater by building and enhancing partnerships with local government, industry, Māori, science agencies and providers; and rural and urban communities.
  • Improve the management of the undesirable effects of land-use on water quality through increased national direction and partnerships with communities and resource users.
  • Provide for increasing demands on water resources and encourage efficient water management through increased national direction, working with local government on options for supporting and enhancing local decision making, and developing best practice.

The solutions are long-term. Improving water quality and management is a challenge for now and the future generation. If we don’t start now then the problems will only become worse and more intractable and expensive to remedy.

  1. How is freshwater managed at present?

The Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) sets the framework for freshwater management, and is administered by the Ministry for the Environment.

Freshwater is managed by regional councils who are responsible for the water bodies within their boundaries through implementation of the RMA. They manage water allocation and quality issues by means of regional policy statements and regional plans (which can specify the amount of water that can be taken from certain water bodies and state how the water is allocated to users) and through the resource consent process.

  1. Is the Government now taking a role in water management?

Regional councils will continue to be the primary managers of freshwater under the RMA. However, the national scale of some problems and the feedback from the New Zealand public indicates a need for a more clearly expressed role for central government involvement in some water management issues. The proposed actions are a response to the call for greater involvement and action. They seek to support and embed the good practices, expertise, and knowledge around the country and will rely on strong engagement with local authorities, along with industry sectors, Māori, water users and communities.

  1. What improvements to water management have already been made?

The Government and councils are responding to demands on water and threats to water quality through initiatives such as the Waitaki Catchment Water Allocation Regional Plan and the Lake Taupo project to improve the water quality of the lake.

The Government recognises and wants to build on existing successful industry and sector-led initiatives such as the Dairy and Clean Streams Accord led by the dairy industry. This is a programme aimed at improving water quality.

Another example is the Dairy Industry Sustainable Environmental Management Strategy launched on 3 April which is a coordinated strategy from the dairy industry to protect the environment and carry out research.

However, it is recognised that the Government can play an enhanced role by providing more leadership and direction to ensure that the management of water keeps pace with growth in industry, changes in land-use activities and climate, and developing communities.

II What is the Government Proposing?

  1. What are the proposals?

A package of actions has been approved by Cabinet. The actions are about enhancing local government’s management of our freshwater resources, building strong and effective partnerships to achieve these actions and creating more leadership from central government.

A Leadership Group will be established over the next three months (reporting to the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry and the Minister for the Environment) to advise the government on the priority that should be accorded to various water management issues and methods to address them.

The Government will confirm the need for and likely content of:

  1. a National Policy Statement on managing increasing demands on water;
  2. a National Environmental Standard for methods and devices for measuring water take and use; and
  3. a National Environmental Standard on developing methods for establishing environmental flows;

The Government will report on the following national priorities:

  1. a programme to identify catchments that are sensitive and “at risk” from rural and urban diffuse discharges; and
  2. the progress with establishing criteria for nationally outstanding natural water bodies.
  3. the potential and options for National Policy Statement on nutrients and microbial contaminants, and sediment.

The Government will report on the following policy proposals:

  1. Enhancing current practice for transferring water consents and the role of water user groups in managing water under cooperative management regimes.
  2. Improved methodologies for applying environmental flows to water bodies.
  3. Options for regional councils to recover costs for water management.

The Government will report on the potential effectiveness of the following policy options:

  1. Methods for identifying and protecting natural character and biodiversity values.
  2. Methods for managing over-allocated catchments including the examining the possible effectiveness of alternatives to first-in-first-served allocation mechanisms.
  3. Model resource consents and consent conditions for water.

Strategies for better alignment of science priorities and the Sustainable Water Programme of Action.

  1. What is meant by “building partnerships”?

The Government recognises that providing leadership in the management of freshwater is not something it can do alone. Solutions need a joint effort from several levels of government, water users (intensive water abstractors and dischargers, farmers and urban), Māori, scientists and the public. The Government expects that commitment by all involved to improve freshwater management will help to avoid future problems. 

The Government recognises that there are many national, regional and local initiatives and programmes already underway (many are funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry under the Sustainable Farming Fund and industry-led initiatives such as the Dairy Industry Sustainable Environment Strategy), in particular, to improve freshwater quality and water use.

We are not starting from scratch. We want to bring a greater urgency, direction and coordination to these projects.

  1. Will local government’s role in water management be affected?

Regional councils will continue to be the primary managers of freshwater. The existing tools and mechanisms that they use to manage water under the Resource Management Act will be strengthened.

An example of this is the proposed development of best practice programmes for the management of over-allocated catchments. Another example is the establishment of clear national priorities for quality and for managing demand for water.

  1. Will councils need to rewrite regional water plans?

Not necessarily. If Cabinet confirms that National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards will be prepared, then the content of these will determine if a rewrite is necessary. If changes are required to regional plans, they will be achieved through the plan variation process, outlined in the Resource Management Act or in the development of second generation plans depending on the area or region. 

  1. Doesn’t local government already have enough tools available for managing water?

The Resource Management Act provides a range of tools for regional councils to manage water. We will look at how some of these tools are being used, and make them work better where needed. On top of this, we want to explore the opportunities to enhance the tools for local government where needed.

The Government wants to give local government more backup and support for local management of water resources. We will work with local government to develop solutions that suit regional circumstances.

  1. Will all rivers and lakes have minimal environmental flows set for them if there are national environmental standards?

Government proposes a standard that focuses on methods that can be used to set environmental flows rather than setting minimum flows through a standard.

  1. Does the programme anticipate changes to the Resource Management Act relating to water?

The Government wants to explore opportunities with local government and stakeholders before making any decisions. Several initial areas have been identified for investigation including current practices for transferring water consents and the use of water user groups. We will report on the outcomes of these investigations and suggest whether legislative change is appropriate.

  1. Haven’t changes to the Resource Management Act relating to water already been made?

Yes. These changes included:

  • the ability to transfer resource consents for discharges to water
  • temporary transfer of resource consents to take water
  • confirming the ability of regional councils to allocate natural resources through regional plans
  1. What has been decided about the water conservation order provisions in the Resource Management Act?

No decisions have been made about water conservation orders in this programme. At the moment, water conservation orders are our only tool to protect rivers and lakes with nationally outstanding natural values.

The Government recognises that a more strategic approach is needed to identify and protect nationally outstanding natural water bodies. We aim to develop criteria to identify nationally outstanding natural water bodies and then to consider the appropriate ways for protecting them. This could include considering the range of mechanisms available such as water conservation orders, national policy statements and specific legislation.

  1. Will all households and other small water users have to have water meters?

One of the important outcomes of the programme is the efficient use of freshwater. To achieve efficient use it is crucial to gain an insight into the actual amounts of water used by major water users, such as irrigators, hydroelectricity companies, and city and town water supplies.

The programme proposes to investigate the use of methods to measure the use of water so that we have consistent data around the country. This does not mean that water users will be required to pay for the amount of water they take.

  1.  Will water be privatised with these proposals?

These proposals are not about the ownership of water. They are about improving the management of water. All of the actions are based on the principle that water will remain a public resource.

  1. What does Government propose about transfer of water consents?

To make the best use of water and to provide councils with flexibility to manage over-allocated catchments, the Government is interested in exploring ways to enhance transferability of water consents.

This is not a new idea or unexplored territory. It has always been possible to transfer water consents under the Resource Management Act. We also know that many regional water plans provide for transfer of water consents within catchments and for similar uses. 

The Government wants to gather more information about these practices to fully understand the meaning and consequences in order to have a proper discussion about transfer in New Zealand and come to a consistent, national approach that guarantees equitable access to water for every New Zealander.

The Government will work with local government, sector groups and other stakeholders to determine whether enhancing transfer of water consents is appropriate.

  1. How is the allocation of water managed now?

People wanting to take or use freshwater or to discharge to water must apply to the local council for a resource consent. Their application is assessed against the council’s regional plan and/or policy statement. If a resource consent is granted, the applicant is given a water or discharge permit. These permits are site-specific but can be transferred to new owners or occupiers of a site, and sometimes to other sites within the same catchment. As some water bodies become heavily allocated, there is growing demand to transfer consents.

  1.  Does the programme cover water storage?

The programme does not directly address water storage as an option to mitigate increasing demand for water, but it will complement other work already underway on defining the role of Government in supporting community water enhancement schemes. This work is led by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in consultation with the Ministry for the Environment.

III The process – what happens now?

  1. What is the next step?

The package of actions to improve water management will be investigated, developed and/or implemented over the next two years. The first step will be to establish a Leadership Group that will advise on the priority that should be accorded to various water management issues and methods to address them.

Reference groups with membership from a wide range of interests will be established to scope national policy statements, national environmental standards and criteria for identifying nationally outstanding water bodies.

To achieve the best possible outcomes, Government wants ongoing input from all those with an interest in water.

  1. What are the timeframes for the programme?

The Minister for the Environment and Minister of Agriculture will give a progress report to cabinet in six months and report to cabinet with their findings and proposals at the end of March 2007.

  1. How can communities, farmers, Māori, industry and other sector groups become involved in the programme?

The Government will seek the expertise and cooperation of all parties involved in managing water resources. The Government will soon establish a Leadership Group that will advise on the priority that should be accorded to various water management issues and methods to address them.

  1. What are the costs of the programme?

The cost of the programme will be worked out with a cost-benefit analysis for each proposed action.

Where possible, the programme will build on existing projects and activities, for example, the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord, and coordination of information and research under Envirolink (Envirolink funds research organisations to assist regional councils in adapting management tools and to translate environmental scientific information into practical advice).

Building on existing programmes will mean that we get the best benefit from funding already provided by government, industry and local government, and will avoid duplication.

  1. What consultation was undertaken?

In December 2004, the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry publicly released the Sustainable Water Programme of Action discussion document Freshwater for a sustainable future: issues and options. It outlined the different ways in which New Zealanders value and use freshwater.

The discussion document also looked at how New Zealand's water is presently managed and the pressures and challenges facing our water management system. A preferred set of directions for improving our system for managing freshwater was also identified in the discussion document.

An extensive consultation process took place in early 2005. Meetings and hui were held throughout the country in February and March, and approximately 300 submissions from a wide range of individuals and groups were received. The consultation process has provided a great deal of information across a broad range of perspectives to help develop the proposals.

  1. What did people say in the consultation?

Six broad goals for the programme were discussed and confirmed with community groups, local government and Māori:

  • Achieve greater strategic planning for water at national and regional levels.
  • Provide clearer direction and guidance from central government.
  • Ensure greater consistency in the way water allocation is managed across the country.
  • Develop a better framework for deciding between conflicting demands for water.
  • Enable increased effectiveness of Māori participation in water management.
  • Provide for more effective management of the impacts of diffuse or unintended discharges on water quality.
  1. How can I find out more about what the public said?

Minutes and notes from the consultation meetings are available from the Ministry for the Environment at www.mfe.govt.nz or by telephoning 04 439 7400. 

Also, five reports arising from public consultation, both the meetings and written submissions, on the Sustainable Water Programme of Action were published in July 2005:

  • Reflections: A Summary of Your Views on the Sustainable Water Programme of Action
  • Wai Ora: Report of the Sustainable Water Programme of Action Consultation Hui
  • Report of the Sustainable Development Water Programme of Action Local Government Workshops
  • Report of the Sustainable Development Water Programme of Action Public Meetings
  • Testing the Water: Report on the Sustainable Water Programme of Action Written Submissions
  1. What technical working papers have fed into the development of the Sustainable Water Programme of Action?

Technical working papers include:


Last Updated: 12 January 2011

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