Part 2: Managing freshwater quality

Managing Freshwater quality: Challenges and opportunities.

In this Part, we discuss:

Causes of poor freshwater quality

Historically, urbanisation, industrialisation, and pastoral farming, which included deforestation and large-scale drainage schemes to convert wetlands to pasture, have contributed to the decline in freshwater quality and in the health of marine ecosystems.4

Sources of pollution can be separated into two categories: "point source discharges" and "non-point source discharges". Point source discharges are discharged directly from the source into the waterway (such as through a pipe). Common examples include discharges from a sewage treatment plant or a milking shed.

Non-point discharges, or "diffuse pollution", is when nutrients, microbial contaminants, and sediment get washed off the land into water bodies when it rains or when contaminants leach into groundwater. Common examples include animal urine and faeces, fertiliser, sediments, and run-off from urban areas.5

In the last few decades, the level of pollution from point source discharges has greatly reduced. Today, diffuse pollution from urban and pastoral land is a leading cause of the decline in freshwater quality. Levels of diffuse pollutants, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, Escherichia coli (E. coli), heavy metals, and sediment, are found in slightly higher concentrations in urban areas.

However, pastoral farming occupies a much larger fraction of New Zealand's land area than cities and towns. A much greater length of our waterways travel through pastoral areas.6 The rapid intensification of dairy farming in the past two decades has had a major adverse effect on the quality of freshwater.7

Some land-use practices (such as the wide-ranging use of nitrogen fertilisers during the last 40 years) can take a long time to affect freshwater quality. For example, it can take decades or more for contaminants that enter groundwater to move through aquifers and back into rivers, springs, lakes, or estuaries. This results in a delay, or lag time, between land-use practices and their effects on freshwater quality.

Lag times vary between catchments and can be as many as 50 or even 100 years. This means that the current state of freshwater in some areas can be the result of land use that occurred many years ago. It also means that past practices will continue to affect freshwater quality and efforts to improve quality for decades to come.8

The current quality and trends of freshwater indicate that many water bodies continue to be at risk of degradation. Between 2008 and 2017, trends for nitrate, dissolved reactive phosphorus, E. coli, and turbidity were worsening at about half of pastoral sites, though improving for ammoniacal nitrogen. In urban areas, decreasing trends for E. coli are seen at most sites.9

How freshwater quality is managed

Regional councils, central government, territorial authorities, Crown research institutes, iwi and hapū, private industries, environmental groups, and the primary production sector all have major roles to play in managing the effects of land use on freshwater quality.

The Resource Management Act is the main legislation that controls how our environment is managed. The purpose of the Act is to promote sustainable management of natural and physical resources through integrating resources and controlling adverse effects of activities on the environment.

The Act includes restrictions on the use of land and the coastal marine area, taking or using water, and discharging contaminants into water, air, or land. There are also restrictions on certain uses of lake and river beds. Part 3 of the Act includes duties and restrictions on everyone, such as requiring everyone to avoid, remedy, or mitigate adverse effects on the environment.

The Act also establishes a hierarchy of policy statements and plans. Documents lower on that hierarchy give effect to documents higher up. In descending order, these documents include national policy statements, national environmental standards, national planning standards, regional policy statements, regional plans, and district plans.

The Minister for the Environment recommends preparing national policy statements and national environmental standards. A regional council must prepare and implement a regional policy statement to give effect to its responsibilities under the Act. This means that regional policy statements must give effect to the National Policy Statement.

Unique to the Waikato Regional Council is Te Ture Whaimana o Te Awa o Waikato – Vision and Strategy for the Waikato River (the Vision and Strategy) ‒ see Figure 2. Enacted through the Waikato-Tainui Raupatu Claims (Waikato River) Settlement Act 2010, the Vison and Strategy is the primary guiding document for managing the Waikato-Waipa catchment. The provisions of the Vision and Strategy prevail if there is any inconsistency between it and other planning documents, including a national policy statement. We discuss the Vision and Strategy further in Parts 4 and 7.

Figure 2
Te Ture Whaimana o Te Awa o Waikato ‒ Vision and Strategy for the Waikato River

Tooku awa koiora me oona pikonga he kura tangihia o te maataamuri

"The river of life, each curve more beautiful than the last"

Our vision is for a future where a healthy Waikato River sustains abundant life and prosperous communities who, in turn, are all responsible for restoring and protecting the health and wellbeing of the Waikato River, and all it embraces, for generations to come.

The National Policy Statement requires regional councils to:

  • set objectives and limits for freshwater quality and quantity, and ensure that land use and water are managed in an integrated way (see Part 7);10
  • consult with their communities when setting objectives (see Part 8);
  • include iwi and hapū in freshwater quality management and have their values reflected in decisions about the management of freshwater; and
  • maintain or improve freshwater quality in a region.11

Under the Resource Management Act, regional council responsibilities include putting in place control functions over the use of land for the purpose of soil conservation, and maintaining and improving water quality and quantity and marine ecosystems. Regional councils fulfil their responsibilities in many ways, including by playing a lead role in enacting policies set by central government, producing regional policy statements and plans, monitoring the state and quality of natural resources, and regulating land-users' and other resource-users' behaviour. Regional councils also manage activities that can affect the beds of water bodies and surrounding ecosystems.

Regional councils carry out regulatory and non-regulatory work to manage freshwater quality. Regulatory work involves regional councils requiring land users to comply with the Resource Management Act, regional rules, and resource consent requirements. Non-regulatory work usually involves providing advice, education, and incentives to change land-use behaviour. Increasingly, regional councils share management responsibility with local iwi through shared leadership arrangements.

We discuss the four regional councils' approach to regulatory activities in Part 9 and their non-regulatory programmes in Part 10.

Groups involved in managing freshwater quality

Iwi and hapū

For regional councils, iwi and hapū are critically important partners for resource management, including managing freshwater quality. Regional councils have legislative obligations, increasingly coming from the Treaty settlement process, about actively involving iwi and hapū in local decision-making.

To be truly effective, the relationship between regional councils and iwi/hapū needs to be based on more than legislative requirements. Regional councils and iwi/hapū need to develop strong and collaborative relationships and ways of working together that are meaningful and effective for both.


Regional councils work with many stakeholders in freshwater quality management, including:

  • Crown research institutes. These include organisations such as NIWA, which researches and monitors freshwater quality in New Zealand.
  • Territorial authorities. District and city councils hold major resource consents for wastewater treatment plants and make decisions under the Resource Management Act about the effects of land use and activities on the surface of rivers and lakes.12
  • The primary production sector (or farming sector). Since 2011, farming companies (such as Fonterra Co-operative Group) and dairy industry representative groups (such as DairyNZ Limited or Beef and Lamb NZ) have increased their commitment towards encouraging sustainable farming practices. Groups such as NZ Landcare Trust also work with farmers to improve sustainable land management. Many individual farmers have also invested in improving their environmental performance. The primary production sector has an important role in freshwater quality management, given how its activities have affected freshwater quality.
  • The New Zealand Fish and Game Council. The New Zealand Fish and Game Council (Fish and Game) has a statutory function to advocate for the protection of freshwater habitats. It takes a strong stance on the need to protect freshwater quality and challenges activities or agencies that adversely affect the sports fishing habitat.
  • Environmental and conservation organisations. These groups (including national bodies such as the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand and locally focused groups) play an important role in highlighting freshwater degradation and calling for improvements. They are often involved in conservation initiatives and clean-up efforts.
  • Community groups and individuals are becoming more involved in monitoring freshwater quality though citizen science and mātauranga Māori monitoring initiatives.

The mix of stakeholders varies from region to region. For example, the Waikato Regional Council considers the forestry and energy sectors as important stakeholders for managing freshwater quality within its region given their significant presence and use of freshwater resources.

4: Gluckman, P (2017), New Zealand's fresh waters: Values, state, trends and human impacts, Wellington, pages vi and ix, at

5: For more information, see the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa website at

6: Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand (2019), New Zealand's environmental reporting series: Environment Aotearoa 2019, at

7: Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand (2019), New Zealand's environmental reporting series: Environment Aotearoa 2019, at

8: Gluckman P (2017), New Zealand's fresh waters: Values, state, trends and human impacts, Wellington, page x, at

9: Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand (2019), New Zealand's environmental reporting series: Environment Aotearoa 2019, at

10: "Limits" refers to the total amount of water that can be taken out of a freshwater management unit or the total amount of contaminants that can be discharged into it without affecting the desired outcome. As outlined earlier, this audit looked at quality aspects, rather than quantity.

11: Ministry for the Environment (2017), National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management: Implementation review, at

12: For more on the roles and responsibilities of councils under the Resource Management Act, see