Part 5: Using freshwater quality information

Managing Freshwater quality: Challenges and opportunities.

In this Part, we discuss how the four regional councils use the monitoring information they collect. As Horizons Regional Council staff said, the value of freshwater quality information is in its application – what councils collect is of little value unless it is used to inform decision-making.

Summary of findings

The four regional councils are effectively using freshwater quality monitoring results to inform high-level region-wide freshwater management planning. They also use this information well to inform planning and interventions to address poor freshwater quality.

Taranaki Regional Council

Taranaki Regional Council uses the results of its freshwater quality monitoring programme to inform its policy direction. Since 2011, the Council has generally used monitoring results for assurance that its management approach is maintaining or improving freshwater quality.

For example, in 2018, the policy and planning committee discussed a report that showed that Macroinvertebrate Community Index (MCI) trends were generally improving. The committee used the report for assurance that the Council was meeting the Fresh Water Plan objectives to maintain or improve freshwater quality in the region.

Taranaki Regional Council's riparian management programme is an example of how the Council uses monitoring results to inform freshwater quality policy proposals. In September 2015, the policy and planning committee discussed the report Review of the status of freshwater quality in Taranaki.31 The report concluded that "the water quality of Taranaki is already very good on a regional basis" and that, aside from dissolved reactive phosphorus measures, which might be a concern, physio-chemical measures were generally improving.

Because of the largely positive results, the report noted that the starting point for considering new policy measures would be to "maintain and further enhance [an] already good state of water quality" while maintaining value for money for the community.

When making recommendations for future policy direction, the report stated that, although riparian management and installing new effluent discharge systems carried a cost to farmers, they were "the most cost-effective and beneficial for the region to take into the next Regional Fresh Water Plan" and were appropriate "in the context of a drive for an appropriate level of enhancement to the waterways of Taranaki".

Taranaki Regional Council's Proposed Freshwater and Land Management Plan had not gone out for public consultation when we were preparing our report. The Council's website states that informal and targeted consultation on a draft plan highlighted several issues that needed further detailed work and consultation, such as setting limits, including cultural values, and protecting biodiversity and wetlands (see Part 7 for further discussion of the Council's work on its Proposed Freshwater and Land Management Plan).

The Council's website also states that the Council has "clearly signalled its direction of travel" on several issues and that "changes are already taking place". These include stating that:

  • the Council's policy is that land-based treatment and disposal of dairy effluent is best practice and that, in most cases, farmers are required to follow that policy when renewing effluent consents; and
  • the Council is confident its riparian management programme is being implemented effectively and that the project will be nearly complete by the end of the decade. The Proposed Freshwater and Land Management Plan includes a requirement for riparian planting and fencing to be completed on land used for intensive pastoral farming by 2020.32

We support how Taranaki Regional Council considers the results of its freshwater quality monitoring programme when preparing policy.

Waikato Regional Council

In our 2011 report, we noted that the Waikato Regional Council had implemented an innovative plan change to protect Lake Taupō after monitoring data identified declining freshwater quality in the lake. Regional Plan Variation 5 – Lake Taupō Catchment (RPV5) capped the amount of nitrogen entering Lake Taupō from urban and rural activities through rules controlling some farm and development practices and requiring consents for others.

We saw how Waikato Regional Council used monitoring data to inform the goals of the Healthy Rivers Wai Ora Plan Change 1 (Wai Ora Plan), which covers management of the Waikato-Waipa catchment, and the earlier, non-statutory Waipa Catchment Plan.

The goals and provisions of the Wai Ora Plan for improving freshwater quality were based on an understanding of declining water quality informed by monitoring data. The main methods for achieving these goals include requirements for stock exclusion, constraints on land-use change, establishing nitrogen reference points and farm environment plans for farming activities, and requiring point source resource consent decisions to consider water quality targets.

The Waipa Catchment Plan focuses on non-regulatory work to improve water quality. It takes an integrated catchment-based approach to identifying prioritised investment of on-ground works, and priority areas for working with landowners, iwi, and community groups.

Waikato Regional Council used monitoring data to inform the Wai Ora Plan process. The Council transparently shared how it used technical information, including freshwater quality monitoring data, to inform policy direction.

Technical Alliance, an independent advisory group of specialists, analysed, summarised, and presented information, including monitoring data, to a collaborative stakeholders group (the main group preparing the Wai Ora Plan – see Part 7). It also shared a broad range of technical reports on the Council's website. The Wai Ora Plan was notified in October 2016 and includes goals to lower nitrogen and phosphorus in the Waikato-Waipa catchment.

Waikato Regional Council also pointed out the immediate effect of having the policy framework as part of the plan process. In particular, the Council developed and implemented a land-use rule change that can require land owners to get a resource consent before changing the use of their land to a more intensive activity.

As we noted in our 2011 report, managing the effects of significant land-use intensification was an important challenge facing the Council. The land-use rule change came into effect when the plan was notified. Since then, there has been a significant reduction in the amount of land in the Waikato-Waipa catchment earmarked for intensification.

The Wai Ora Plan covers the catchments of the Waikato and Waipa Rivers. We encourage the Council to apply its approach more broadly as plans are prepared for the other catchments in its region.

Horizons Regional Council

Horizons Regional Council's regional plan (One Plan) demonstrates an understanding of variations in freshwater quality within and between catchments and the many factors that can contribute to poor water quality. The One Plan has a water management framework that sets targets for freshwater quality. The framework has requirements for maintaining and improving freshwater quality.

The One Plan also includes objectives for freshwater quality and policies for achieving these targets. It includes policies to manage land-use activities affecting freshwater quality and to regulate intensive farming activities, point source discharges to water and land, and human sewage discharges.

The policy regulating intensive farming includes nutrient allocation limits for nitrogen (see paragraph 9.17), requirements to prevent faecal contamination in freshwater, and measures to manage land at risk of erosion.

We saw examples of Horizons Regional Council using monitoring information to inform interventions. For example, the Council worked with the Lake Horowhenua Accord (the Accord) to restore water quality in Lake Horowhenua.

The Accord is a collaboration led by the Lake Trust (elected to represent the Muaūpoko beneficial owners of the lake), and involves other groups, including the Horowhenua Lake Domain Board, Horizons Regional Council, local district councils, and the Department of Conservation. Members of the Accord have produced an action plan to restore freshwater quality in Lake Horowhenua and supported the implementation of significant works to achieve the goals.

There has been significant freshwater quality monitoring that involves several groups. The monitoring has identified that sediment loss from the surrounding land catchment into the lake, and the phosphorus that attaches to it, undermines the lake's health. There is also clear evidence of toxicity problems in the lake related to cyanobacteria and ammonia, which arise from the seasonal growth of lake weed. These complex issues negatively affect the lake's aquatic life.

We saw evidence that knowledge of these issues, and an improved understanding of their causes, has largely informed Horizons Regional Council and the Accord's strategies and approaches to addressing them. Management actions have included purchasing machinery to harvest lake weed and building a sediment trap on the inlet of the Arawhata Stream.

Horizons Regional Council and other members of the Accord know that these measures alone will not be enough to improve the freshwater quality in Lake Horowhenua. They have committed to a long-term programme of work that builds on current measures. We expect the Council to continue to build on the progress it has made in this area.

Environment Southland

Environment Southland has drawn on freshwater quality monitoring information when preparing and consulting on its proposed Water and Land Plan. Since 2011, Environment Southland's investment in science has seen it increase its knowledge (through projects such as "Water and Land 2020 and beyond").

That knowledge has informed the planning process and will continue to inform its upcoming processes to set limits on the amount of water taken (limit-setting) throughout the region. We support how Environment Southland is increasingly using the results of its freshwater quality monitoring programme when preparing policy.

We also saw evidence of Environment Southland prioritising efforts to improve waterway quality at a more local level. Environment Southland has completed a "stratification" project, which divides the region's waterways into smaller areas based on freshwater quality monitoring results, the issues these results signify, and the levels of contaminant load moving through those waterways.

This process has used models based on the freshwater monitoring data, which have identified several areas with high contaminant loads and waterways with multiple issues. Environment Southland intends to use the findings of this work when limit-setting.

31: Taranaki Regional Council (2015), Review of the status of freshwater quality in Taranaki, at

32: Taranaki Regional Council (2018), Water and soil plan review, at