Crown investment in freshwater clean-up.

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangarangatanga maha o te motu, tēnā koutou.

The quality of freshwater in New Zealand's lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands is important to our well-being, national identity, and contributes to our clean and green reputation. Human intervention (for example, agriculture and deforestation) and the effects of climate change have degraded freshwater quality in some areas. To restore, improve, and preserve freshwater quality for future generations, the Crown contributes significant funding to national freshwater clean-up projects.

However, restoring freshwater quality is a challenge that involves a wide range of communities and stakeholders. Furthermore, several factors make it difficult to attribute improvements in freshwater quality to specific clean-up projects. This includes the length of time for improvements to come into effect, which can take up to 100 years in some regions. Therefore, it is difficult to demonstrate how effective specific freshwater clean-up projects have been. Despite these challenges, it is important that the allocation and monitoring of Crown freshwater clean-up funding contributes to national efforts to restore, improve, and preserve freshwater for future generations.

We examined how the Ministry for the Environment (the Ministry) administered four Crown freshwater clean-up funds (the four funds) for improving lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. Our primary objective was to assess whether Crown funding was being used effectively to improve freshwater quality. Collectively, the four funds provided more than $190 million of investment from 2008 to 2032. We assessed:

  • how effectively the Ministry administers Crown funds;
  • whether robust processes for selecting projects were applied; and
  • the effectiveness of the Ministry's monitoring processes during a project's funding period.

We considered what outcomes each of the four funds aimed to achieve. We also considered whether the projects that were funded targeted specific areas or whole catchments, and whether they used a collaborative approach with a range of stakeholders.

In order to provide a different perspective and improve our understanding of common challenges and lessons regarding freshwater clean-up, we also examined how the Waikato River Authority manages its freshwater clean-up projects.

Main findings

Parliament and the public rightly expect that any investment in freshwater clean-up will make the best use of available funding. However, there is currently no national framework to guide or inform freshwater clean-up funding. This is partly because the science available to support decisions about improving freshwater quality is complex and continues to evolve. Although each fund was able to demonstrate some progress towards their intended outcomes, the Ministry cannot yet demonstrate the overall effectiveness of its freshwater clean-up funds. Therefore, it is difficult to tell whether the money invested has been targeted as effectively as it could have been.

The Ministry only recently commissioned its first evaluation to assess the effectiveness and outcomes of the Fresh Start for Freshwater Clean-up Fund after all of its funded projects were completed. Implementing a more formative evaluation process during a freshwater clean-up fund's life (as well as for individual projects) would further support the Ministry to demonstrate effectiveness. This could inform the Ministry on what is going well and what might require improvement.

Through the Ministry's latest fund, the Freshwater Improvement Fund, it is focusing on improving water bodies in catchments showing signs of stress. This is a more targeted and strategic approach to selecting projects and planned evaluations of the Fund, which should help improve the effectiveness of investment in freshwater clean-up.

Notwithstanding the difficulties in assessing the effect of specific freshwater clean-up projects, the Ministry has progressively improved its administration of freshwater clean-up funds through applying knowledge and experience from managing earlier funds. We saw a range of innovative practices, such as harvesting lake weeds and projects aimed at supporting iwi relationships with their awa and other waterways. We also saw several examples of freshwater clean-up projects under each fund achieving planned milestones and programme outputs during the funding period.

The Ministry needs to improve co-ordination and collaboration with other funders of freshwater clean-up projects to achieve long-term and sustainable improvements.

My audit also identified further improvements that could be made to existing administration arrangements. These relate to how the Ministry administers its fund application processes, data management systems (including the reporting of voluntary contributions), and how it ensures that project benefits are maintained after the project funding period ends.

My view

In my view, it is likely that the overall Crown investment would have been more effective if a more co-ordinated approach had been taken. The Ministry's ability to effectively manage freshwater investment has been further limited because there is no national freshwater clean-up framework to guide clean-up efforts. Setting clear national short-, medium-, and long-term priorities and goals would support prioritisation and collaboration, and help improve the effectiveness of Crown funding.

I am, however, encouraged by a report from the Ministry and the Ministry for Primary Industries, Essential Freshwater: Healthy Water, Fairly Allocated, published in October 2018. The report aligns with international good practice, introduces the Essential Freshwater work programme, and records the Government's intention to establish a "freshwater taskforce" of advisory groups to co-ordinate water users and organisations responsible for managing freshwater funding. The report also discusses implementing a framework for freshwater policy to give the Government clearly defined goals to work towards. I endorse the recommendation to implement a national framework or strategy.

I thank the Ministry, the Waikato River Authority, the individual iwi and community groups, and the Horizons, Canterbury, Bay of Plenty, and Waikato Regional Councils for their co-operation in this audit.

Nāku noa, nā Greg

Signature - GS

Greg Schollum
Deputy Controller and Auditor-General

18 September 2019

Photo acknowledgement: Karen Williamson