Appendix 3: Relevant provisions of the Resource Management Act 1991

Managing freshwater quality: Challenges for regional councils.

This Appendix sets out provisions of the RMA that are especially relevant for managing freshwater quality.

Purpose and principles

The RMA is the country's principal environmental legislation. The purpose of the RMA is to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources. Sustainable management means:40

… managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being and for their health and safety while—

(a) sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; and

(b) safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and

(c) avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment.

Section 6 of the RMA sets out the matters of national importance that all people exercising functions and powers under the RMA are required to recognise and provide for. These include:

  • preserving and protecting the natural character of wetlands, and lakes and rivers and their margins;
  • protecting areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna;
  • the maintenance and enhancement of public access to lakes and rivers;
  • the relationship of Māori and their culture and traditions with their ancestral lands, water, sites, wāhi tapu, and other taonga; and
  • the protection of protected customary rights.

Section 7 sets out other matters that people exercising functions and powers under the Act are required to have particular regard to. These include:

  • kaitiakitanga, which is defined as "the exercise of guardianship by the tāngata whenua of an area in accordance with tikanga Māori in relation to natural and physical resources; and includes the ethic of stewardship";
  • the efficient use and development of natural and physical resources;
  • the maintenance and enhancement of amenity values;
  • intrinsic values of ecosystems;
  • maintenance and enhancement of the quality of the environment;
  • any finite characteristics of natural and physical resources; and
  • the protection of the habitat of trout and salmon.

Everyone exercising functions and powers under the Act is required to take into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The RMA imposes a duty on all people to avoid, remedy, or mitigate adverse effects on the environment. The Act also contains restrictions on discharging contaminants into water and on the taking, use, damming, or diversion of water, and certain uses of the beds of lakes and rivers.

RMA planning framework

The RMA sets out the planning framework for managing natural and physical resources. Regional councils must produce a regional policy statement. These are high-level documents that provide an overview of the resource management issues of the region, and policies and methods to achieve integrated management of the region's natural and physical resources – including freshwater.

District plans, which are made by city and district councils, must give effect to the regional policy statement produced by the regional council.

Regional policy statements must include:

  • issues – an existing or potential problem that must be resolved to promote the purpose of the RMA;
  • objectives – a statement of what will be achieved through resolving the issue;
  • policies – an intended action or attitude towards an issue;
  • methods – the way the policy is implemented (these can be regulatory or non-regulatory); and
  • Environmental Results Anticipated (ERAs) – what might be achieved from the combined effect of the objectives, policies, and methods.

Regional policy statements must be reviewed no later than 10 years after they become operative – this means that most regional councils have reviewed these documents at least once since the RMA came into effect.

Regional councils may also produce a regional plan to assist with managing the natural and physical resources in a region. Regional plans must contain objectives and policies and may also include rules (which have the force of regulation).

Regional plans are important for managing freshwater quality as they can permit or enable resource consents to be granted for certain activities (that would otherwise be prohibited under the RMA), subject to meeting certain requirements.

A regional plan can set water quality standards. Schedule 3 of the RMA sets out a list of different water quality classes that a regional council can apply to a freshwater body through its regional plan. These water quality classes include numeric and narrative standards for the water body. The water quality classes, and the associated standards, differ depending on the intended use of the water – for example, contact recreation or fishery purposes.

A regional council can state in its regional plan that water bodies in its region are to be managed for the purposes described in the water quality classes set out in Schedule 3 and the standards relevant to those water quality classes will then apply to those water bodies. The rules in the regional plan will then require observance of those standards. If the council does choose to use the Schedule 3 classes, it can include more stringent or specific rules. Regional councils are not required to use the water quality classes in Schedule 3.

The RMA allows for a "mixing zone" downstream of a discharged contaminant where water quality may be reduced but, past the mixing zone, a regional council cannot set standards in a plan that result, or may result, in a reduced quality of the water in any waters unless it is consistent with the purpose of the RMA to do so.

Preparation of planning documents

The process for preparing planning documents is set out in Schedule 1 of the RMA (see Figure 11). It involves public notification of planning documents, and allows for the public to make submissions to which a local authority must respond. If a person is unhappy with a local authority's decision about his or her submission, that person may appeal to the Environment Court. The Environment Court can direct the local authority to amend a planning document if appropriate.

Figure 11
The Resource Management Act's process for preparing regional plans and regional policy statements

Figure 11: The Resource Management Act's process for preparing regional plans and regional policy statements.

Functions of regional councils under the RMA

To manage freshwater quality, the RMA allows regional councils to control:

  • using land for the purpose of:
    • maintaining and enhancing the quality of water in water bodies;
    • maintaining the quantity of water in water bodies; and
    • maintaining and enhancing ecosystems in water bodies;
  • discharging of contaminants into or onto land, air, or water, and discharges of water into water; and
  • in relation to any bed of a water body, controlling the introduction or planting of any plant in, on, or under that land, for the purpose of:
    • maintaining and enhancing the quality of water in that water body; and
    • maintaining the quantity of the water in that water body.

The RMA also requires regional councils to monitor the:

  • efficiency and effectiveness of policies, rules, or methods in regional policy statements or regional plans;
  • exercise of resource consents;
  • exercise of delegated or transferred functions and powers; and
  • the general state of the environment.

The RMA also requires regional councils to take appropriate action (in response to monitoring carried out) where it is shown to be necessary.

Regional councils may also take enforcement action for breaches of the RMA, of regulations made under the RMA, or of regional plans or resource consents.

40: Section 5 of the Resource Management Act 1991.

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