Part 1: Why is the Auditor-General interested in water management

Introducing our work programme - Water management.
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In this report, we:

The quotes that we use from other agencies' reports do not represent our views. We have included them to show some of the challenges that others have identified and associated with water management.

What do we mean by "water management"?

We use the term "water management" in this report to cover the roles and responsibilities given to organisations (mainly government departments and local authorities) through government policy or legislation. The main pieces of legislation are the Resource Management Act 1991 and the Local Government Act 2002.

These roles and responsibilities include:

  • setting strategic priorities and policy;
  • implementing government policy, including Treaty settlements that affect water bodies;
  • regulating use of water and the effects of activities on water (plan-making and consenting);
  • monitoring and enforcing compliance with the standards that organisations set and the consents they grant;
  • monitoring the state of the environment;
  • providing "three waters" services to communities – drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater;
  • providing funding for projects to supply water for irrigation and clean freshwater bodies and marine water; and
  • conducting research and reporting on the state of New Zealand's water resources.

We have taken a broad view of water – freshwater resources (with a focus on rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers), the marine environment (excluding fisheries), and three waters services delivered to communities.

The overarching question that will guide our work is this:

How well are publicly funded organisations managing water resources and delivering water-related services, for the benefit of New Zealanders now and in the years to come?

Why are we looking at water management?

Water is a significant natural resource that all New Zealanders rely on for their physical, economic, environmental, social, and cultural wellbeing. If you rely on something, you need to manage it well over the long term.

Our role is to provide independent assurance to Parliament and the public that organisations funded by taxes and rates are operating, and accounting for their performance, in keeping with Parliament's intentions.

Parliament has given some of these organisations roles and responsibilities for water management. Significant investment is made in managing water and delivering water-related services. The organisations are accountable to Parliament (and, for councils, accountable to their communities) for how they use these powers and spend taxpayer and ratepayer funds.

Parliament and the public expect organisations to exercise their water management roles and responsibilities, and spend taxpayer and ratepayer funds, in the best interests of New Zealanders.

There are many challenges in managing water and delivering water-related services, which we outline in Part 2. They include legacy issues associated with land use (both rural and urban), providing infrastructure for growing communities, ageing infrastructure, and the challenges associated with responding to change – including climate change and changing regulatory standards.

We are interested in how these challenges are dealt with from a public management and accountability perspective:

  • how organisations are meeting their obligations;
  • whether they are spending taxpayer and ratepayer funds wisely; and
  • how well they are communicating with New Zealanders on what they plan to do, how they intend to achieve their plans, and how well they are performing.

Our independent position means we can take a long-term view and look at the whole public management system. We cannot comment on the policies of organisations such as government departments and local authorities – to do so would mean we are no longer acting independently. We have also chosen not to second-guess the science associated with water, particularly water quality. This is the domain of others. However, as appropriate, we might comment on the implications of the scientific results we consider during our audits.

We cannot cover all water management issues. We have chosen eight topics that span drinking water, freshwater, stormwater, and the marine environment. They enable us to consider the challenges outlined in Part 2 and the themes described in Part 3. Although we are not explicitly covering wastewater management as a topic in its own right, it is likely to feature in some of our other work because of the effects of wastewater discharges on freshwater quality and the relationships between wastewater and stormwater networks.

We intend to be constructive in the work we do on water management, to identify any required improvements in how water resources are managed and water-related services are delivered. We can do this by sharing good practice and innovation, highlighting where entities are working well together. We will also identify any issues, risks, and opportunities that the organisations we audit are grappling with in carrying out their water management roles and responsibilities.

We have reported on water management previously, including the following reports:

Water is a topic of increasing interest internationally, with many countries experiencing significant pressures on their water resources. Many other audit offices have carried out audit work on water-related topics – the availability of safe drinking water; competing demand for limited water supplies; dealing with drought and flooding; the quality of rivers, lakes, and other surface water; the marine environment; adequacy of data; and the effects of climate change.

We have been involved in developing international guidance for audit offices on auditing water issues and fisheries management. We lead the Pacific Association of Supreme Audit Institutions' regional working group on environmental auditing. The purpose of this group is to encourage and build capacity for environmental audits. We have supported co-operative audits by colleagues in Pacific Island audit offices on environmental topics, including water and marine topics.2

2: See the section on co-operative performance audits on the PASAI website, at