Part 4: Responding to issues and setting policies

Managing freshwater quality: Challenges for regional councils.

In this Part, we discuss how regional councils:

Our overall findings

All four regional councils have areas of declining freshwater quality. The regional councils were responding to these areas of decline and to complaints and pollution incidents reported by community members. The timeliness of responses was variable, with Waikato Regional Council and Environment Southland needing to improve.

Some regional councils are moving away from permitted activity rules towards stronger regulatory approaches to managing non-point source discharges. The activities and land uses that regional councils are seeking to regulate are often the same activities that the dairy sector is working with farmers to manage better. There is already significant collaboration between the dairy sector and some regional councils, and we encourage regional councils to continue to work closely with the dairy sector to improve freshwater quality.

All regional councils are currently considering how they will respond to the National Policy Statement. Regional councils may need support from central government and the Land and Water Forum on how to set limits under this framework, and how to manage the effects of intensified land use within those limits.

Responding to freshwater quality issues

We expected regional councils to have systems to alert them to areas of declining freshwater quality (as shown by scientific monitoring results) and allow them to respond to declining water quality as it became apparent.

Responses taken by regional councils might include:

  • investigating the cause of declining freshwater quality;
  • initiating programmes to improve freshwater quality; and
  • making changes to regulatory and non-regulatory programmes to address the causes of declining freshwater quality.

Initiating programmes to improve water quality

All four regional councils were able to cite examples where scientific monitoring data had identified declining freshwater quality and where the council had taken action in response. The councils had also changed their monitoring networks to enable them to monitor emerging resource management issues or to ensure that policies were working. Examples included:

  • identifying faecal and nutrient peaks in a Waikato stream led to identifying a stock crossing on a nearby farm that allowed effluent to be directly deposited into the water body;
  • implementing an innovative plan change to protect Lake Taupo in response to declining freshwater quality trends;
  • annual reporting using the Macroinvertebrate Community Index that found negative trends in two Horizons Regional Council sites. A project to assess options to improve freshwater quality began at one site, and a detailed monitoring programme is under way at the other to identify the cause of declining freshwater quality;
  • identifying the monitoring results that showed a risk to a Southland river, investigating the cause of the risk, and making recommendations to address the risk;
  • preparing targeted guidelines and education programmes for resource users; and
  • adding additional monitoring sites to the Taranaki network to allow the council to monitor the effectiveness of its riparian planting programme.

The actions that councils have taken in response to emerging freshwater quality data have not always been timely. For example, we note two instances in Southland where faecal contamination of waterways was detected. In one instance, it took two years to resolve issues about contamination from septic tanks entering a waterway. In the other instance, it took four years for Environment Southland to launch a project to address the faecal contamination in the catchment.

Making changes to planning documents and council processes

All four regional councils used the results of their scientific monitoring programmes to update their policies, methods, or programmes for responding to emerging issues. These changes range from extensive and far-reaching plan changes to strengthening ongoing council programmes. The latter can include reorganising compliance and enforcement and education activities to better target risks from non-point source discharges or developing systems to record the number of permitted activities occurring in the region.

Scientific information supports Taranaki Regional Council's reviews of policies. Although Taranaki Regional Council has not made any fundamental changes to its planning documents (despite the Regional Freshwater Plan becoming operative in 2001), it continues to improve on the implementation of its regional plan. Each year, Taranaki Regional Council produces annual reports on all its significant activities. There is evidence that Taranaki Regional Council uses this information to refine and adapt its programmes for managing freshwater quality.

Horizons Regional Council used scientific information extensively when forming the region's new One Plan, which resulted in a significant refocusing of policies to address the region's freshwater quality issues. It carried out a comprehensive scientific programme to ensure that policy development was based on sound technical information. Catchments at risk from non-point source discharges and sediment were identified, and regulatory and non-regulatory programmes were designed to target the risks.

Environment Southland has made several plan changes to respond to emerging issues in the region. The plan change for managing dairy farm effluent is not yet operative, so the council is yet to see improvements resulting from the policy change. However, we consider that the new policies significantly strengthen the council's approach to managing non-point source discharges.

Waikato Regional Council has also made several plan changes to respond to emerging issues in the region. The most high-profile plan change was Variation 5, which introduced nitrogen limits for discharges in the Lake Taupo catchment (see paragraph 4.38).

Waikato Regional Council has identified that its current permitted activity framework is not effectively managing significant risks to freshwater quality in the region. However, it is yet to change how it manages non-point source discharges. We consider that such change is imperative given deteriorating freshwater quality and high levels of non-compliance in the region. Waikato Regional Council publicly notified its updated regional policy statement in November 2010, and a new regional plan process will soon be under way. It is intended that the new regional plan will provide a stronger framework for managing non-point source discharges.

In addition, Waikato Regional Council, through Variation 6 to its regional plan, is proposing that water takes for cooling milk and washing dairy sheds require a controlled activity resource consent. To meet the conditions of the proposed controlled activity, applicants must, among other steps, exclude all stock from water bodies (for example, by fencing) and provide a riparian vegetation management plan for the property. It is intended that this will have significant water quality benefits throughout the region. This proposal is currently before the Environment Court and a decision is expected in late 2011.

Responding to complaints and pollution incidents

We also expected regional councils to have systems for communities to report pollution incidents or make complaints about freshwater quality issues. We expected regional councils to respond to complaints and pollution incidents when they occurred.

All four regional councils operated systems to receive complaints and reports of pollution incidents and most had set targets for responding to these complaints and incidents.

Taranaki Regional Council reports that it responds to all pollution incidents and other complaints within four hours of receiving the complaint. The council's response includes instigating control, clean-up, and enforcement procedures where appropriate. Taranaki Regional Council registered and investigated 546 pollution incidents and other complaints in 2009/10, and 57% of these related to freshwater. The Council places great emphasis on responding to, and acting on, pollution complaints to ensure that consent and plan requirements are complied with once approved.

Horizons Regional Council staff use a scoring sheet to assess the appropriate response time to complaints and pollution incidents. The Council aims to respond to 80% of urgent incidents within four hours and to 70% of non-urgent environmental issues within two days. In 2009/10, Horizons Regional Council responded to 85% of urgent incidents and 67% of non-urgent incidents within the time frames set. Horizons Regional Council reports that its response is restricted by staff availability – generally because of prior work commitments to ongoing investigations or the requirements of the monitoring programme.

Environment Southland attempts to respond within one hour to all land-related incidents and complaints about incidents that have a negative effect on water. In 2009/10, Environment Southland met this target only 45% of the time. Staff resources are limiting Environment Southland's ability to respond within the stated time frames. The database that Environment Southland staff use to record complaints and pollution incidents does not flag follow-up actions where required. This is recognised as a problem that contributes to a lack of timeliness in responding.

Waikato Regional Council has set targets for responding to significant pollution incidents and complaints about freshwater quality, but not for other complaints and pollution incidents related to freshwater. Waikato Regional Council receives between 1200 and 1400 complaints each year, about 25% of which relate to discharges to water. Waikato Regional Council has a system for recording and responding to complaints, but we were not confident that the system rigorously:

  • records the follow-up action that is taken to resolve complaints and pollution incidents and identify risks to freshwater quality – especially for complaints and incidents that occur outside of office hours; or
  • monitors progress in responding to complaints and pollution incidents to ensure timely resolution and recording where enforcement action has been taken.

Waikato Regional Council also notes that staff resourcing can limit its ability to respond to complaints.


All four regional councils had systems that allowed them to identify areas of declining freshwater quality and to respond to complaints and pollution incidents.

Regional councils used the results of their scientific monitoring programmes to:

  • investigate or implement programmes to improve freshwater quality; and
  • update their policies, methods, or programmes to respond to emerging issues.

Some responses to declining freshwater quality and pollution complaints and incidents were more timely than others. Staff availability is the main factor for some councils responding to complaints and incidents in a timely manner.

Waikato Regional Council needs to improve its systems for ensuring and recording responses to complaints and pollution incidents. Environment Southland and Waikato Regional Council need to improve timeliness in responding to declining water quality issues when they become apparent.

Setting freshwater policies

Implementing science-based limits, standards, or targets

When discussing water quality, the "capacity for use" of a water body means the ability of the water body to dilute and assimilate contaminants while sustaining water quality at a level acceptable to communities. A "limit" can be referred to as the maximum contaminant load that a water body can assimilate while maintaining the level of water quality that is desired by communities. Different water bodies will have different limits set according to how they are used – for example, less contamination might be acceptable for a mountain stream than for an urban stream.

Deciding what the numerical limit should be for a particular water quality variable and a particular water body is complex. It requires input from multiple disciplines, including various scientific fields, economics, law, policy, and planning. Setting a limit for water quality involves discussing the desired environmental state with communities and agreeing a numerical value that meaningfully represents this environmental state.

The Land and Water Forum found that a lack of limits for managing freshwater was a major problem. The Land and Water Forum's report stated:

Without limits it is hard to manage [non-point source] discharges – nutrients, microbes, sediment and other contaminants that wash into water from the land – and impossible to deal with the cumulative effects on water bodies of water takes on the one hand and [non-point source] and direct discharges to water on the other.

… There are a number of reasons why limits have been difficult to set. Central government has not used national instruments to provide direction though two are now in preparation. Few regional councils have had the consistent and coherent policy and planning frameworks to put the necessary management regimes in place … It is difficult to get agreements about what limits should be, how quickly they should be achieved and who should bear the cost.27

In partial response to the Land and Water Forum's report, the Minister for the Environment approved the National Policy Statement, which came into effect from 1 July 2011 (see paragraphs 2.20-2.21). The National Policy Statement requires all regional councils to make or change regional plans to set freshwater objectives and freshwater quality limits for all bodies of freshwater in their regions.

In 2010, the Ministry for the Environment commissioned a report that identified barriers in regional councils to setting and meeting freshwater quality limits.28 These included a lack of:

  • political will to set limits for non-point source pollution;
  • stakeholder/community buy-in to the issues associated with non-point source pollution;
  • guidelines or robust science to translate ecological, cultural, amenity, and recreational values to limits;
  • understanding of how to trade and balance social and economic outcomes; and
  • time and resources to develop specific limits for catchments.

Limits can be set at any level of the planning framework – including in national environmental standards, in regional policy statements and regional plans, or as conditions in resource consents. The Ministry for the Environment commissioned a report29 published in June 2010 that describes the benefits of setting limits higher in the planning framework, at least at the regional plan level, as well as the consent condition level that has often been used in the past. The report suggests that objectives in regional plans must be measurable enough (preferably numeric) to allow limits to be justifiably set using science. Plans that contain measurable objectives and linked limits can:

  • make environmental outcomes clearer and more certain;
  • be used to manage cumulative effects;
  • improve clarity about future resource availability and conditions likely to be included in resource consents;
  • manage multiple types of activities that affect freshwater quality (that is, point source and non-point source); and
  • measure whether objectives have been attained and monitor the effectiveness of plan provisions over time.

In September 2011, the Government outlined a further role for the Land and Water Forum in New Zealand's freshwater reforms. In March 2012, the Land and Water Forum is to make recommendations on:

  • what is needed to put in place the limit-settings aspects of the National Policy Statement, including what central government and local government need to do, the roles and responsibilities of water users, and the nature and scope of limit-setting tools; and
  • better processes for making decisions about limits, especially for involving iwi and other interest groups.

In September 2012, the Land and Water Forum is to prepare recommendations on how to manage freshwater within limits.

Managing freshwater within limits in the four regional council regions

The four regional councils took different approaches to setting limits for managing freshwater quality.

Horizons Regional Council's proposed One Plan identifies values for water bodies. Water bodies with the same values are then grouped into Water Management Zones, and water quality limits are set for each zone. The limits are designed to protect the value assigned to each zone.

Scientific and technical investigations identified the numeric water quality limits needed to protect the particular values, and reference was made to recognised standards and guidelines such as ANZECC. Policies set in the One Plan propose a course of action to manage water quality within these limits where they are currently met, and to maintain and enhance water quality where the limits are not currently met. Horizons Regional Council reports little public debate on the freshwater quality limits in the proposed One Plan during the process of preparing the plan. Instead, the public debate centred on the costs to landowners and city and district councils associated with the proposed policy.

Waikato Regional Council's operative regional plan sets region-wide water quality limits based on the water quality classes set in Schedule 3 of the RMA.30 These are a mix of numeric and descriptive limits. In the Taupo catchment, Variation 5 to the regional plan sets an overall loading limit for nitrogen for the catchment. The idea is that this limit will maintain water quality in Lake Taupo at its current level, while allowing land users to trade nitrogen allowances within the limit. Identifying and setting an appropriate catchment loading limit took a significant amount of scientific work and cost and took more than 10 years to achieve.

Environment Southland classified its water bodies based on source of flow and geology. It used a technical expert panel to develop water quality standards for each class of water body. The standards were designed to support the values identified for the river classes, and are predominantly numeric limits. Public debate during the plan process focused on the numeric standards rather than the values. The process resulted in an increased number of measurable standards because the public wanted standards that could be enforced. The standards are implemented by rules that require discharges to meet the water quality standards.

Taranaki Regional Council identified values for water bodies through community consultation. It set narrative objectives for freshwater quality management in its regional plan and has good numeric measures and targets in its long-term plan and annual plan. Taranaki Regional Council uses numeric guidelines and the water quality classes in Schedule 3 of the RMA to assess resource consent applications. The regional plan sets numeric standards for discharges of dairy effluent to land and to water (which are both controlled activities31).

In all four councils, less work has been done on setting limits for managing groundwater quality. Environment Southland was the only regional council to set region-wide limits for groundwater quality.


All regional councils are currently considering how they will respond to the National Policy Statement and set limits under this framework. In our view, the Ministry for the Environment's report32 (see paragraph 4.32) is a useful place to start.

The councils that have set a limit in their regional plans have involved the public in the process – whether on what the limit should be or to support further numeric limits to bring more certainty to managing water quality.

Setting limits to manage freshwater quality in all water bodies in a region will present its own set of challenges for regional councils. However, the real challenge lies in managing the activities that affect water quality in a region so that those limits can be met. Regulating the activities that lead to non-point source discharge may be required to manage freshwater quality within limits.

The further work by the Land and Water Forum in 2012 on setting limits and managing within them should help regional councils to implement the National Policy Statement. The Ministry for the Environment could ask regional councils whether they need further guidance.

Recommendation 6
We recommend that the Ministry for the Environment seek input from regional councils and unitary authorities on whether they need information on:
  • the economic assessments required to implement the changes required in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management; and
  • what has been learned from limit-setting processes already carried out in New Zealand and internationally.

Land use controls and non-point source discharge – regulating land use

Regional, district, and city councils all have functions to manage land use but for different purposes. City and district councils can control the actual or potential effects of the use, development, or protection of land. Regional councils have the function of controlling the use of land for the purpose of maintaining and enhancing the quality of water and ecosystems in water bodies.

Under the RMA, the use of land is permitted, unless that use contravenes a national environmental standard or a rule in a district plan or regional plan. If the use contravenes a rule, it can still be allowed if a resource consent is granted or the use has "existing use rights". Although the use of land is generally permitted, discharging contaminants into the environment is prohibited by the RMA unless permitted by a national environmental standard, a rule in a regional plan, or under a resource consent.

Non-point source discharges are widely recognised as a significant issue for regional councils in managing water quality. Until recently, most councils have not taken a strong regulatory approach to managing these discharges.

Many land uses are a permitted activity in regional plans. These permitted activities (including, for example, discharging dairy effluent onto land in the Waikato region and applying agrichemicals where they may enter water in Southland) are allowed, provided that all conditions of the permitted activity rule are met.

Permitted activity rules are not individualised for landowners, meaning there could be a low level of knowledge of what the rules are and the need to comply with them. Some councils do not monitor compliance with permitted activities. Even if they did, they would not always know where and when the activity was occurring. It is difficult to monitor some permitted activity rules (for example, that fertiliser application accords with the permitted activity rules in the Waikato regional plan). The ability to monitor compliance with a regional plan raises awareness of the required management standard and can bring about improved rates of compliance.

As well as using permitted activity rules for some land-use activities that contribute to non-point source pollution, most councils have previously used non-regulatory programmes to attempt to manage the effects of non-point source discharges.

The non-regulatory programmes to manage non-point source discharges and sediment include:

  • encouraging landowners to fence and plant trees along river and stream banks (riparian management);
  • subsidising plants and fencing for riparian management;
  • council staff and farmers working together to plan sustainable options for hill country farming (for example, planting forestry on eroding hill country); and
  • promoting and providing advice to farmers about best management practices.

However, some regional councils have found that landowners have not taken up voluntary non-regulatory programmes as much as the councils would have liked. For example, Taranaki Regional Council's programme to address non-point source discharges is its riparian management programme. Taranaki Regional Council has made significant progress in writing riparian plans for about 95% of dairy farms in the region. Since the riparian management programme began, landowners have fenced an additional 1919 kilometres of stream banks and 2 million plants have been sold to landowners carrying out their riparian plans. However, Taranaki Regional Council considers that rates of fencing and planting will have to increase substantially to meet the target of implementing 90% of riparian plans by 2015. Taranaki Regional Council notes in its 2009/10 annual report that:

It is important that Taranaki farmers now get on with the job of implementation as opposed to being led by regulation as advocated by many critics of farmers' environmental performance.33

Waikato Regional Council notes that its current non-regulatory methods are not as effective as it needs them to be to maintain and enhance freshwater quality and that voluntary methods are not enough to address the water quality issues.

Horizons Regional Council also notes that its primary non-regulatory programme for addressing sedimentation entering water from hill country (the Sustainable Land Use Initiative) might be less effective because the programme is voluntary.

Environment Southland has moved to a stronger regulatory approach to managing dairy farm effluent. It achieved this by introducing tighter planning controls to its regional plan – including the need to apply for resource consent for some discharges to land.

Environment Southland has also begun a statutory review of its regional policy statement. It is doing this in conjunction with Southland District Council's review of its district plan. Environment Southland staff have indicated that they are discussing transferring powers from Southland District Council to Environment Southland on matters related to land use as a possible way of integrating land use into its planning regime. Environment Southland indicated to us that strengthening regulation of land use is likely to be part of future policy.

Horizons Regional Council's proposed One Plan changes its approach to managing land uses that give rise to non-point source discharges. Although currently subject to appeal, Horizons Regional Council has developed a regulatory approach to limiting nutrient inputs from some land-use activities in specific problem catchments. This approach sets limits on some farming activities to control nutrient inputs into the wider catchment.

With Variation 5 to its regional plan, Waikato Regional Council has built a regulatory framework that is able to control land use in the interests of influencing water quality outcomes. The Council's proposed regional policy statement also seeks to set up a regulatory framework that is likely to be much stronger.


Some regional councils are moving away from permitted activity rules and non-regulatory approaches to managing non-point source discharges. This change is occurring against a backdrop of intensifying agricultural land use, worsening freshwater quality, and recognition within regional councils, communities, and the primary production sector that action needs to be taken to halt and reverse declining water quality trends.

The activities and land uses that regional councils are seeking to regulate are often the same activities that the primary production sector is working with landowners to manage better. Close working relationships between regional councils and the primary production sector should help to achieve improved freshwater quality.

Environment Southland and Southland District Council were taking a co-operative approach to reviewing their planning documents. This could be a useful model for other councils considering how to manage the effects of specific land uses on freshwater quality.

Recommendation 7
We recommend that all regional councils and unitary authorities be able to demonstrate that they are co-ordinating their efforts effectively with appropriate stakeholders to improve freshwater quality.

Getting through the planning process

The process regional councils must go through to make new regional policy statements or regional plans, or to make changes to existing plans, is set out in the RMA. It involves several stages of community consultation and allows for appeals on decisions (see Appendix 3).

Overall, the changes that the regional councils have made to their regional plans, and the creation of new planning documents, have taken many years – for example:

  • Environment Southland's Regional Water Plan took almost 10 years from being proposed until it became operative;
  • Waikato Regional Council's Lake Taupo Variation 5 took 10 years; and
  • Horizons Regional Council's One Plan process has been under way for about seven years, and at the time of writing was under appeal.

In contrast, in the Taranaki region, there appears to have been a high degree of agreement with the community on policy development. There were no appeals on the aspects of the Regional Freshwater Plan relating to agricultural discharges. Taranaki Regional Council considers that its early engagement with its community on the issues led to greater acceptance of the proposed policy.

Council staff throughout the regions told us that the speed of getting policy through the RMA planning process is frustrating and cannot keep up with the speed of changes to the factors affecting water quality. The rapid growth in the dairy sector is a good example, with planning documents not allowing for the increase in the cumulative effects of non-point source discharge.

Delays to the planning process can result from the election of new councillors who may not agree with the policy direction of the previous council.

The Land and Water Forum's report proposes an alternative and quicker approach to regional planning. The Ministry for the Environment is working on its response to this proposal. Whatever comes out of this work, we consider that public engagement in policy development is integral to ensuring that policy meets the needs of communities. The policy development process can be useful in helping communities to understand the issues and in identifying a way forward. A good policy development process, with community support, can provide a region with a strong policy platform for many years.


It can take many years to get plan changes and new planning documents through the planning process set out in the RMA. Changing councillors because of the election cycle and differences of opinion on policy between councillors, between councillors and staff, and between councils and communities can contribute to delays in setting policies.

A long planning process is not always a disadvantage. It can allow communities to be brought up to date with issues and to plan a joint way forward. However, it can also mean that a timely response to issues is delayed while freshwater quality continues to deteriorate.

27: Land and Water Forum (2010), Report of the Land and Water Forum: A Fresh Start for Fresh Water, page viii.

28: Sinclair, Knight, Mertz (2010), Regional Council Practice for Setting and Meeting RMA-based Limits for Freshwater Flows and Quality, Ministry for the Environment.

29: NIWA (2010), Technical and Scientific Considerations when Setting Measurable Objectives and Limits for Water Management, Ministry for the Environment (which is available at

30: See Appendix 3 for more information on Schedule 3 of the RMA.

31: A controlled activity is one for which a council must issue a resource consent, but conditions can be imposed on the consent.

32: NIWA (2010), Technical and Scientific Considerations when Setting Measurable Objectives and Limits for Water Management, Ministry for the Environment (which is available at

33: Taranaki Regional Council, 2009/2010 Annual Report, page 10, which is available at

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