Auditor-General's overview

Managing freshwater quality: Challenges and opportunities.

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

The quality of water in our groundwater, lakes, rivers, and streams is important to New Zealanders' well-being and national identity. We all expect freshwater to be managed sustainably for current and future generations.

In 2011, we published a report on how effectively Waikato Regional Council, Taranaki Regional Council, Horizons Regional Council, and Environment Southland (the four regional councils) managed the effects of land use on freshwater quality in their regions. We found that the effectiveness of the four regional councils' approaches was variable. In this report, we assess the progress they have made since 2011.

Improvements since our 2011 report and challenges

Regional councils are working in a difficult environment, with a range of stakeholders and often competing interests. Despite these challenges, the four regional councils have made improvements in aspects of their water management that support planning and targeting interventions to protect and improve freshwater quality. Some of the improvements made include:

  • better sharing of information about freshwater quality with the community, particularly through the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa website;
  • working more collaboratively with their communities, bringing more consensus to decision-making, and better understanding the many points of view and aspirations for freshwater;
  • improved approaches to consenting, compliance monitoring, and enforcement, including procedural improvements to reduce the risk of elected members influencing enforcement decisions; and
  • investment in non-regulatory programmes to support and promote the use of more sustainable land-use practices that are widely accepted as improving freshwater quality.

However, the four regional councils could further improve how they share information about freshwater quality, strengthen relationships with iwi and hapū, and commit to using a full range of tools for compliance, monitoring, and enforcement.

Analysis conducted for us by National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Limited (NIWA) has confirmed that the four councils all have robust freshwater quality monitoring programmes.

Improved national-level reporting is needed

I am concerned that there is not enough information about freshwater at a national level to prioritise efforts on a national basis. Decision-makers do not have the information they need to prepare a national approach or long-term strategy to this significant environmental issue.

A detailed national-level picture of freshwater quality is central to understanding the significance of factors affecting freshwater quality and the degree to which those factors are significant to particular regions. This picture would inform the prioritisation of action to address challenges and aid effective national-level planning and decision-making to support the work of regional councils in managing freshwater quality.

The shortcomings in national-level reporting are caused in part by complexities in using regional council data to form a national picture. There are also significant gaps in knowledge about the effects of poor freshwater quality, including the effects of pollution on te ao Māori and human health. These issues need to be addressed.

Work has been under way for some time to improve how information about freshwater is reported and used, but leadership is needed for meaningful progress to be made. I urge the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand to take this leadership role, working with regional councils and others to make the improvements that are needed.

I consider that the recommendations and messages in this report are relevant to all regional councils and unitary authorities. I ask that all councils use them as appropriate to support improvements in their approaches to freshwater quality management. I also encourage all groups involved in freshwater quality management to continue to build on their collaborative efforts to sustainably improve freshwater quality.

I thank the staff of Waikato Regional Council, Taranaki Regional Council, Horizons Regional Council, and Environment Southland for their co-operation. I also thank the stakeholder representatives who took the time to provide their insights and staff from the Ministry for the Environment and NIWA for their technical assistance and contributions to this report.

Nāku noa, nā John

Signature - JR

John Ryan
Controller and Auditor-General

11 September 2019

Photo acknowledgement: iStock J Wilkinson