Auditor-General's overview

Managing freshwater quality: Challenges for regional councils.

Healthy streams, rivers, and lakes are important to our way of life. We want them to be clean enough to swim, play, and fish in, and to remain clean and healthy enough for our grandchildren to enjoy in years to come. Arguably, we have an obligation to protect ecosystems regardless of our own interests in them. We also need economic growth and development for our long-term well-being. Balancing these important matters is the essence of this report.

How our freshwater should be managed is characterised by many strongly held and potentially conflicting opinions.

The overall quality of the water in our rivers and streams rates well internationally but is deteriorating. My audit shows that we have reason to be concerned about freshwater quality in some parts of the country, particularly in lowland areas that are mainly used for farming.

Preventing further decline in freshwater quality is preferable to having to spend a lot of money to recover damaged water bodies. In some places (particularly in lakes, wetlands, and groundwater), recovery is not possible and damage to the ecosystem is irreversible.

Regional councils are responsible for managing the activities that affect freshwater quality. Regional councils have done this in the past by limiting and setting quality standards for discharging wastewater from industry and sewage treatment plants to streams, rivers, and lakes. Although the effects of these direct discharges are still apparent in some places, the cumulative effects of "non-point source" discharges are now the most difficult challenge for regional councils in managing freshwater quality.

Non-point source discharges include nutrients, chemical pollutants, sediment, and bacteria that run off land or leach through soil into surface water and groundwater. In urban areas, the source is largely stormwater. In rural areas, the sources are animal urine and dung, fertiliser, eroding soil, dairy farm effluent, and septic tanks.

Although people often cite other causes of declining water quality, many scientists are sure that freshwater quality is declining because land is being used more intensively – for example, the number of dairy cows on farms has increased. Although many members of the farming community are taking steps to reduce the effects of non-point source discharges, some are resistant to the need for individual farmers to take responsibility for the levels of nutrients applied to, and leaching off, their properties.

Scope of the audit

My aim was to provide an independent view of how effectively regional councils are managing land use (and the resulting non-point source discharges) for the purpose of maintaining and enhancing freshwater quality in their regions. We looked at four regional councils – Waikato Regional Council, Taranaki Regional Council, Horizons Regional Council, and Environment Southland. I have provided each of these councils with a detailed report on the results of our audit for their council. This report discusses matters arising from the audits of the four regional councils, and makes recommendations for all regional councils and unitary authorities.

Overall audit findings

Each of the four regional councils we audited had adequate systems for collecting data on, and had a good understanding of, freshwater quality in its region.

Based on my detailed audit findings and analysis of scientific monitoring data, I conclude that Waikato Regional Council and Environment Southland are not adequately managing the causes of non-point source discharges in their regions. In both regions, significant intensification of land use (dairy farming) has meant more pressure on freshwater quality. The current regulatory and non-regulatory methods, and how they are being implemented in these regions, are not enough to reduce the known risks to freshwater quality. Both councils are trying to tackle the challenges of non-point source discharges and their cumulative effects, and there are some signs of improvement, but there is still significant work to be done.

Horizons Regional Council is maintaining and enhancing freshwater quality in the Rangitikei and Whanganui river catchments, but not for the Manawatu River catchment. The overall state of water quality remains undesirable in a number of places. Horizons Regional Council has a well-designed set of regulatory and non-regulatory programmes targeted at reducing the known risks to freshwater quality. These programmes should support future improvements in freshwater quality in the region.

Overall, Taranaki Regional Council is maintaining and, in places, improving freshwater quality in its region. Several aspects of Taranaki Regional Council's management of freshwater are effective. However, scientific monitoring of freshwater quality in low-elevation areas suggests that there is some vulnerability in the region. I consider that Taranaki Regional Council is well positioned to address these risks to freshwater quality by adapting its existing methods.

Overall, there is still some way to go if we are to halt and reverse the declining trends in freshwater quality. Changes are needed sooner rather than later, because it takes time before improved policies result in improved freshwater quality.

Regional councils cannot manage freshwater quality alone. I was encouraged to see strong collaboration – from high-level policy at the central government level to regional councils and dairy sector representatives working together at a strategic and on-farm level.

Some regional councils are taking a more regulatory approach to managing non-point source discharges. Some of the activities and land uses that regional councils are regulating are the same activities that the dairy sector has set targets for improving.

All four regional councils are implementing programmes or policies to respond to areas of poor or declining freshwater quality. Although it can take many years to make changes to regional plans, some regional councils are starting to implement innovative, scientifically based policies that seek to manage freshwater quality within limits.

In the Taupo catchment, Waikato Regional Council has taken a "whole farm" approach to managing nutrient emissions within limits, but the other three regional councils have not regulated to control all nutrient emissions from all farms. The Government's new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management now requires regional councils to set freshwater quality limits for all bodies of freshwater in their region. Non-regulatory approaches and permitted activity rules are not likely to be sufficient to manage freshwater quality within limits.

With regard to enforcing compliance with regional rules and resource consent conditions, I was concerned to note that councillors in all the regional councils had some involvement either in deciding whether the council should prosecute or in investigating a case once the decision to prosecute had been made. There are strong and longstanding conventions against elected officials becoming involved in prosecution decisions. All investigation and enforcement decisions on individual matters should be delegated to council staff for an independent decision.

One of the most notable challenges to managing freshwater quality is balancing the rural sector's economic contribution with everyone's desire for clean lakes and rivers.

Managing freshwater quality needs an integrated approach. I encourage those involved to consider:

  • collaboration at all levels – central and local government, across local government, with the dairy sector, stakeholders, iwi, farmers, and communities;
  • sharing knowledge and information – especially easy availability of nationally comparable, high-quality, scientific data and research;
  • a holistic approach to managing freshwater that integrates land use, freshwater quality management, and the effects on the coastal marine environment; and
  • strong links between freshwater management planning and using scientific monitoring to measure the effectiveness of the policies being implemented.

I thank the four regional councils for their willing co-operation with this audit, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Limited for its advice, and Fonterra, DairyNZ, the Ministry for the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Ecologic Foundation, and the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment for their helpful comments.

Signature - LP

Lyn Provost
Controller and Auditor-General

21 September 2011

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