6.1 Freshwater management

Local government: Results of the 2004-05 audits.

Regional councils are responsible under the Resource Management Act 1991 (the RMA) for managing the freshwater resources in their regions. This is not a simple task – it requires the councils to manage competing priorities to both use and protect our freshwater resources.

In May 2005, we published a report of a performance audit that looked at how the RMA framework had been implemented by the Horizons Regional Council and the Otago Regional Council to manage freshwater in their regions.1

These 2 councils were selected for audit not because of any particular performance issues but because we wished to identify regional councils with pressures on the allocation and quality of water that had plans in place for water management. While we looked at only 2 councils, we expected that the main messages from the audit would be valuable for all regional councils.

The audit focused on 4 aspects of the activities of regional councils in managing freshwater – planning, implementation, monitoring, and acting on information.

Overall, we found that Horizons and Otago Regional Councils had made good progress in some areas, such as planning and implementing water allocation frameworks, but that they needed to make improvements in other areas – particularly compliance, and effectiveness and efficiency monitoring.

Some of the main messages from the audit include:

  • Planning documents can be significantly improved by including simply worded, measurable objectives that clearly set out what the plan intends to achieve, and specifically outlining the environmental state sought.
  • Procedures for monitoring the effectiveness and efficiency of policies and methods should be linked to specific policies and methods. These should be set up while the plan is being developed. Effectiveness and efficiency monitoring is essential to determine which parts of planning documents achieve the desired goals and which do not – and therefore where improvements are required. New requirements to publicly report the results of this monitoring at least every 5 years mean that councils will need to improve the way in which they plan and carry out effectiveness and efficiency monitoring.
  • It may be timely (as councils prepare second-generation planning documents) for regional councils and territorial authorities to review their procedures for permitting intensive agricultural activities where significant effects on water quality are likely.
  • Where water quality is significantly degraded, or likely to become degraded, by non-point source discharges, it may be necessary for regional councils to regulate to reduce the effects of these discharges, or to strengthen the regulation that exists. This may include (but is not limited to) requiring nutrient budgeting, reduced fertiliser application, or the planting of riparian margins.
  • Responding to complaints is part of the “public face” of regional councils. When members of the community perceive that regional councils are not fulfilling this role, they can become frustrated and lose faith in the council’s ability to protect the environment. This, along with reducing the negative effects of environmental incidents, is an important reason to promptly respond to, and investigate, pollution incidents.

1: Horizons and Otago Regional Councils: Management of freshwater resources, ISBN 0-478-18133-7.

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