Part 6: Reporting freshwater quality information

Managing Freshwater quality: Challenges and opportunities.

In this Part, we discuss:

Summary of findings

The four regional councils have made some improvements since our 2011 report, but further improvements are needed. Three of the four regional councils make broadly accessible information on the state of freshwater available to the public. However, they could improve this information. In particular, councils could be more proactive in releasing information.

The four regional councils generally have good records of regulatory and non-regulatory activity costs and reporting of these costs. They could do more to differentiate the costs of different environmental activities in that reporting so a more complete picture can inform community decision-making.

Regional states and trends information

Regional councils' public reporting of freshwater quality information allows their communities to understand the state of the environment. Understanding which water bodies are facing the greatest risk is critical to making decisions about what needs to be done to improve freshwater quality.

It is also important for regional councils to keep stakeholders well informed to promote trust and encourage a balanced debate. As part of this, regional councils need to communicate the level of quality assurance and peer review carried out on their freshwater quality information.

The Resource Management Act requires regional councils to monitor the state of the environment and the effectiveness and efficiency of policies, rules, or other methods in their policy statement or plans. Results of this monitoring must be compiled and made publicly available at least every five years. The Act does not clearly prescribe how regional councils should report on freshwater quality.

We looked at how the four regional councils publicly communicate states and trends information. This included:

  • how recently the four regional councils have produced region-wide reports on freshwater quality;
  • what those reports suggest about freshwater quality in the four regions; and
  • the level of quality assurance and peer review that the four regional councils carry out on their information so they can be confident in what they are presenting.

We were also interested to see how the four regional councils inform their communities about freshwater quality more broadly. In particular, we wanted to know how they communicate their body of technical knowledge to a general or non-technical audience. As we noted in our 2011 report, this type of reporting is needed for readers to fully appreciate the implications of the information and to support action needed to protect and improve freshwater quality.

Before looking at each council, it is important to acknowledge that, since 2014, the four regional councils have increasingly shared their regional freshwater quality data on the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa website. The website displays water quality data collected by regional councils at more than 1100 sites throughout the country.

Although there are some limitations to the data collected and presented on the website (for example, regional councils' different monitoring methodologies and quality assurance practices), it is a step forward in sharing freshwater quality information with the public in a user-friendly and regional way.

Taranaki Regional Council

Taranaki Regional Council publishes an annual water quality report card and a State of the environment report every five years (the last one was published in 2015). Both the report card and the State of the environment report are easy to find on the Council's website.

In its Healthy waterways report 2018, Taranaki Regional Council notes that "all the toxicant measurements at 15 Taranaki sites" meet national standards set by the Ministry. Of those sites, 78% were rated "best", 20% "intermediate", 2% "acceptable", and 0% "unacceptable". The report also noted that river ecology trends are improving at 53% of 57 sites, showing no obvious trend at 45% of sites, and are deteriorating at 2% of sites.

Finally, the picture of physical and chemical trends at 11 sites is "largely stable". Of the 11 sites, 84% have no obvious trend and 16% show a deterioration. These freshwater quality trends are also presented in a basic report card.33

Taranaki Regional Council's State of the environment report, which is more in-depth and technical, was peer-reviewed by independent specialists. Specifically, the surface and groundwater chapters were reviewed by scientists at NIWA and PRIME Hydrogeology Limited respectively.

Horizons Regional Council

Horizons Regional Council published State of the environment reports in 2005, 2013, and 2019. The reports are available on its website. The Council also commissioned environmental consultants (Land Water People Limited) to prepare a states and trends report for river quality in the Manawatū-Whanganui Region in November 2018. This is also available on the Council's website.

As well as its more in-depth reports, Horizons Regional Council published a two-page freshwater report in 2018 that summarised freshwater quality in the region. The two-page report noted that Horizons Regional Council had seen "measurable improvement in many of the Horizons Region's waterways" but that more needed to be done in some areas.

For river water quality, the most recent State of the environment report states that:

… [t]en-year trends show predominately degrading trends for periphyton (chlorophyll a), macroinvertebrate community index, dissolved reactive phosphorus, clarity, and spot measurements of dissolved oxygen. Predominantly improving trends were detected for soluble inorganic nitrogen, ammoniacal nitrogen, and the number of exceedances of the E. coli criteria for swimmability.

The report also provides a detailed region-wide picture of water quality states and trends through clear and understandable graphics.

The reports do not clearly state the level of peer review that the Council's publications receive. However, the report prepared by Land Water People Limited does provide the Council and its community with an independent view of the region's freshwater quality states and trends.

The Council also helps to produce reports about the states and trends of particular water bodies in its region. In 2017, the Council helped to produce a report card for Lake Horowhenua as part of the Lake Horowhenua Accord, a partnership with the Lake Horowhenua Trust and other parties to improve the health of the lake.

The Council is also part of the Manawatū River Leaders Accord through which iwi/hapū, local and central government, farming, and industry leaders and others work together to improve the health of the Manawatū River and its catchment. In 2018, the Accord produced a report on progress against its action plan that included a summary of states and tends information for the river and the region.

Environment Southland

Environment Southland published a report in April 2017 on the states and trends of freshwater quality in its region.

In 2015, Environmental Southland also produced a seven-page factsheet summarising water quality in the Southland region. The main message was: "Southland's water quality is a mixed bag. Some areas are good, but some are not. It's not all bad news, but there are key areas where improvements in water quality need to be made."34

The report also includes a map of the region that shows the location of freshwater monitoring sites. On the map, the monitoring sites are represented by a circle divided into quarters. Each quarter represents what Environment Southland is measuring – E. coli, nitrate toxicity, macroinvertebrates (fish food), and slime algae – and the colour of each quarter represents the quality level.

Environment Southland produced its 2017 report in-house. NIWA and Environmental Associates Limited, an environmental consultancy, reviewed the report's analytical methods. Environmental Associates Limited also provided a review of the analytical results, including confirmation that the results were able to be replicated.

Waikato Regional Council

Waikato Regional Council publishes data and trends on its website that covers nitrogen losses from farms, river biology, river water quality for contact recreation, river water quality for ecological health, sources of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), and surface water availability. However, the Council does not bring together this technical information in a manner that provides a regional picture of freshwater water states and trends for a general or non-technical audience.

It does provide information about region-wide freshwater quality through one Waikato progress indicator (a way the Council measures the region's progress on 32 economic, environmental, and social matters to give a dashboard view of the region's health). The progress indicator for river water quality is brief. It states:

The average proportion of unsatisfactory river water samples for ecological water quality for the period 2013-2017 at over 100 monitoring sites throughout the Waikato region was largely unchanged from 2003-2007.35

Furthermore, the proportion of unsatisfactory river water samples remained consistent from 2004 to 2015.

As the only easily accessible source of non-technical region-wide states and trends information, this is not enough. Waikato Regional Council produces a lot of detailed, peer-reviewed freshwater quality information about the catchments in its region.

We consider that the Council needs to do more to bring this technical information together and make it available in ways that convey its message to a general or non-technical audience. This will help to support and inform the wider community discussion and commitment to action needed to protect and improve freshwater quality.

Improving how freshwater quality information is shared

We expect regional councils to be transparent when sharing freshwater quality information and to be able to have open and honest conversations with their communities about the challenges they face in managing freshwater quality.

Since our 2011 report, the four regional councils have improved the ways they share freshwater quality information. There is room for further improvement. In particular, although Waikato Regional Council has shared a lot of technical information about specific catchments in its region, it could do more to produce regional freshwater quality states and trends reports to better inform the public about the health of the region's waterways as a whole.

Environmental groups we spoke to in the Southland region were concerned that Environment Southland was keeping important details from the community by staggering the release of scientific information. We raised this concern with senior leaders at Environment Southland.

They explained that Environment Southland has heavily invested in advancing its science programme and in communicating information from that programme to the community. They said that bringing together and releasing information in packages is the most effective way of sharing related information. This will provide the community with a fuller and more understandable scientific picture. They noted that Environment Southland would ensure that the community has ready access to information about freshwater quality as soon as it is ready to share.

Since we spoke with them, Environment Southland has completed its four-year Southland Science Programme. Research outputs from the programme are available through Environment Southland's website. This includes a database of technical reports and community-focused research overviews. It also includes videos and posters from a science symposium held to celebrate the conclusion of the programme.

Because the public debate about freshwater quality has become increasingly complex, staff in regional councils told us that they have, at times, felt under attack by the media and wider community. Some regional councils have reacted to criticism with increased openness and honesty about the challenges they face in managing freshwater quality.

However, some regional council staff and stakeholder representatives noted that regional councils have, at times, countered such criticism by increasing the emphasis on "good news" stories to balance out these perceived attacks.

We looked at the four regional councils' websites and press releases. We do not dispute the accuracy of what is reported but have concluded that reporting was, at times, weighted towards highlighting success stories rather than challenges. In our view, if releasing "good news" stories has been used to counter criticism, this has been counter-productive. Some stakeholders have viewed the positive messages with scepticism.

The four regional councils are attempting to keep the public well informed about freshwater quality developments. However, they could improve the way in which they ensure balance in the information reported. Balance is critical in building and maintaining trust with the community.

Recommendation 3

We recommend that the Waikato Regional Council, Taranaki Regional Council, Horizons Regional Council, and Environment Southland support and inform wider community discussion of freshwater quality issues by ensuring that the information they make available to their communities is clear, complete, up to date, consistent, accessible, and readily understandable.

Communicating the costs of freshwater quality management

Regional councils are accountable to their communities for how they use their powers and spend rate-payer funds. This includes being transparent about costs and having a clear understanding of the costs and benefits of different policy choices and consequent programmes of work.

Our report Introducing our work programme – Water management highlighted that this understanding is essential for making good decisions. We were interested in how well regional councils made the costs of freshwater quality management visible to the public.

The four regional councils generally record and report well on the costs that are specific to identifiable regulatory and non-regulatory activities. For example, Horizons Regional Council has evaluated the costs involved in the Manawatū River Clean-Up Fund, clearly reporting previously estimated costs for each project, actual costs, and reasons for variances between those figures. The Council's public reporting also clearly outlines proposed budgeted costs for 2017/18 freshwater quality management projects and initiatives.

For Waikato Regional Council, Taranaki Regional Council, and Environment Southland, the costs reported for freshwater quality work were likely to represent only part of the overall costs. This was largely because these councils generally aggregated the costs of staff time and tasks that are common to the different activities people work on into administrative headings.

Regional council staff were confident that separating this financial information was possible through further interrogation of financial data. In our view, Waikato Regional Council, Taranaki Regional Council, and Environment Southland could do more to differentiate the costs of different environmental activities and communicate these to their communities. Providing a more complete picture of the costs incurred will usefully inform future conversation with the community when evaluating priorities and making decisions.

33: Taranaki Regional Council (2018), Healthy waterways report 2018, at

34: Environment Southland (2015), Water quality in Southland, at

35: See Waikato Progress Indicators at