Part 4: Improving freshwater management and its use

Monitoring how water is used for irrigation.

In this Part, we discuss:

Councils are using data to alert, educate, and influence changes to behaviour

In our view, councils could use data from water meters to support permit holders to use freshwater more efficiently. Because the Regulations do not prescribe how councils are to use this data, it is up to each council to decide what they do with it.12 Councils are working independently of each other to use water meter data to influence and change how permit holders use freshwater.

Developing systems and processes

The six councils were developing systems and processes to allow them to integrate and use their water meter data to influence the way freshwater is used.

In some councils, water meter data can be combined with a range of other data, modelling, and information. Other councils are planning to integrate their water data in similar ways.

Some councils had developed systems and processes to combine all of their water-related data in one place (see Example 6). Bringing together water information from different sources, including water meter data and water flow and permit information, gives councils a wider view of water management.

Example 6
Marlborough District Council developed eWater, an online tool, using funding from the Council and the Ministry for the Environment. eWater shows the complete information for each water permit, including the source of water, water management unit, permit number, date of issue, lapse date, any scanned documents, a map of the property, and information about use against allocation. This information is available all in one place to both permit holders and the Council.

eWater also has the functionality (although it is not currently in use) to allow permit holders who do not use all of their allocated amount to transfer some of this to another permit holder using the same water source. The community had initial concerns that this could lead to "water trading", but the Council has taken steps to address these concerns.

Another council had set up water management groups to encourage permit holders to work together to use freshwater more efficiently (see Example 7). Meetings allow a community to identify ways it could use water more efficiently.

Example 7
Environment Canterbury has formed Water Management Zone Committees. These committees hold meetings about water management, including water metering, to encourage a more efficient use of freshwater. Local rūnanga are represented on the committees, and participants have included Fish & Game New Zealand, the community, and scientists. Environment Canterbury publishes online all of its responses to requests under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987. Fish & Game New Zealand, Aqualinc Research Limited, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Limited, and Dairy New Zealand have requested and been provided with information related to water metering.

Water Management Zone Committees are starting to use water meter data to more effectively ration water during periods of drought or low flows through local rivers. The committees make decisions on a number of environmental limits, including allocation limits. By setting up these committees, Environment Canterbury encourages more effective and efficient use of water meter data when dealing with environmental issues.

Where they saw fit, the six councils were anticipating opportunities to use water meter data and models to set more realistic limits for permit holders. These limits have been determined using estimates and are now often determined using past water-use data from meters and, in some cases, computer models. The six councils have reviewed water use limits when permits expire, catchments or zones are over-allocated, and because of plan changes. These reviews can cause limits to be reset and lowered.

As the quality of data from water meters improves and more trend information becomes available, councils will have more information to support allocations and limits for water use. All councils have a key role in ensuring that they use all relevant and current information to set realistic and needs-based water allocations.

Better engagement by the six councils

Most councils have shared information about water metering and freshwater use with the public and interested parties. Feedback from the public and other interested parties shows that they appreciate councils' efforts to work with them.

Permit holders

Water meter information and analysis are available primarily for permit holders through purpose-built portals on council websites. Individual and groups of permit holders tend to be the primary audience and can use this information to change their water consumption behaviours.

Some councils are using water meter information to provide feedback and alerts to permit holders when they are in danger of breaching their allocations. Councils are using a combination of compliance and education activities and support to influence behaviour so that more permit holders do not exceed their allocation. This should reduce the need for councils to take corrective action.

Data hosts also send automated alerts to permit holders to warn them when they are exceeding their allocation. Automated alerts are efficient at ensuring that permit holders do not exceed their allocation.

Stakeholders and the public

Councils have shared information about water use with their communities. In Example 8, a council successfully engages with communities and stakeholders. This follows its commitment to an overall water management strategy when the Regulations were implemented.

Example 8
Environment Canterbury met with communities to discuss the installation of water meters. Farmers were receptive and have invested in new technology to improve the quality of their data. Environment Canterbury has also established contacts with organisations such as Forest & Bird and Fish & Game New Zealand and met with local iwi. Environment Canterbury has produced specific water reports and held multiple information events about water use and irrigation efficiency.

Some water meter information is available to the general public. This includes public compliance monitoring reports and water-use reports. One council publishes annual accounts of the water used in each of the different administrative zones in its region. Many councils also used their websites to provide data and information about the quantity of water flowing through rivers in their region. This information helps the public understand the quantity of freshwater used for irrigation.

Land, Air, Water Aotearoa13 publishes some national freshwater consumption information online. However, often only permit and allocation data rather than actual-use data is presented. This is because data from councils is not consistent enough. As a result, the public is unable to obtain a national view of freshwater consumption for irrigation. Locally, councils also need to share and promote more information with the public about how much freshwater is used.

Councils are providing information to their communities and the wider public. In our view, the challenge for councils is to respond to the demand effectively to get the most out of requiring permit holders to record freshwater consumption, and to use this information to improve water consumption behaviours.

In our view, although some councils are using metering data to influence water use, a lot of work is still needed to embed the use of metering data to change how efficiently freshwater is used. Councils should continue to work with others to improve the education, guidance, and support available to permit holders to ensure that the irrigation practices and methods they use are the most effective and efficient.

Co-ordination is needed to realise greater benefits

In our view, the work individual councils are doing to encourage more efficient use of freshwater has the potential to help change how permit holders consume freshwater. However, co-operation between councils could help achieve better results.

Water metering is part of a technology-based change in agriculture and environmental monitoring. Councils and the environmental sector need to consider the benefits of integrating different types of data. Water metering in conjunction with other data, such as soil quality data, could provide crucial information and play an essential part in managing resources better. Strong leadership and governance will be needed to find opportunities to integrate water-metering information with other data.

There is also a significant opportunity for central and local government, permit holders, and other stakeholders to work together to better manage freshwater. The data from water meters provides valuable information about freshwater use. However, data alone will not lead to more efficient use of freshwater. There are many stakeholders, and in our view central government can, through the Ministry for the Environment, co-ordinate knowledge and sharing practices to make better use of water meter data, which will lead to more efficient use of freshwater.

The Ministry for the Environment was planning to measure some of the benefits of the Regulations and water metering in 2014/15. However, this did not happen. Now that the implementation has taken place, the time is right for the Ministry to assess the effectiveness of water metering and the Regulations. In our view, this should include the effectiveness of water metering in changing how permit holders use freshwater.

Recommendation 3
We recommend that the Ministry for the Environment, councils that manage freshwater resources, and other interested groups work together to use water-use data to encourage compliance with water permits and the limits they impose, to enable effective and efficient use of freshwater resources.
Recommendation 4
We recommend that the Ministry for the Environment evaluate the benefits of water metering to understand how it has changed the way people and organisations holding water permits have used what they have been allocated.

12: The Regulations make permit holders responsible for collecting the data. Levels of investment also provide an incentive for permit holders to collect and use the data. In one region, it is estimated that about $50 million has been invested by farmers to comply with the Regulations.

13: Land, Air, Water Aotearoa was initially a collaboration between New Zealand's 16 regional councils and unitary authorities. Land, Air, Water Aotearoa is now a partnership between the councils, Cawthron Institute, Ministry for the Environment, and Massey University, with support from the Tindall Foundation. Its aim is to help local communities find the balance between using natural resources and maintaining their quality and availability.