Part 7: Setting freshwater quality objectives

Managing Freshwater quality: Challenges and opportunities.

In this Part, we discuss:

Summary of findings

When we visited them, the four regional councils were at different stages of setting objectives. Horizons and Waikato Regional Councils had made the most progress. Taranaki Regional Council and Environment Southland were not as far advanced in setting their objectives.

Since we met with them, and despite the challenges facing councils in setting objectives, the four regional councils have made progress with their plans for setting freshwater objectives by 2025. These plans have been prepared in consultation with, and have been made available to, their communities.

Freshwater quality is a social issue and its improvement needs involvement from the community. It is essential that the four regional councils work effectively with all interest groups when setting objectives. There remain opportunities to deepen engagement and involve the community more in decision-making. This will strengthen regional councils' understanding of community values and aspirations, and enable them to reflect those aspects in the agreed objectives.

The four regional councils have improved how they consider economic and social factors to understand the full costs of improving freshwater quality. Waikato Regional Council and Environment Southland are leading the way in the use of modelling. This type of information can support meaningful conversations with communities about freshwater objectives and limit-setting.

How regional councils set freshwater quality objectives

Under the National Policy Statement, freshwater objectives are intended environmental outcomes for each "freshwater management unit" in a region. Freshwater management units are water bodies, parts of water bodies, or groups of water bodies that regional councils decide are the appropriate scale to manage under the National Policy Statement.

The National Policy Statement requires regional councils to set freshwater objectives and limits in their regional plans. This includes regional councils having a plan to maintain or improve the overall quality of freshwater in water bodies and groups they identify in their regions. The National Policy Statement also requires regional councils to prepare objectives by identifying water quality values for each freshwater management unit to guide the setting of freshwater objectives in regional plans.

Amendments introduced in 2014 included several compulsory national values for freshwater and a set of national bottom lines for freshwater quality attributes that are relevant to the national values, including total phosphorus, nitrate, and ammonia toxicity, dissolved oxygen, and a faecal indicator (E. coli). Further amendments in 2017 included introducing targets for swimmable lakes and rivers.

Although regional councils are required to implement the National Policy Statement in their policies and plans by 2025, they can extend the deadline to 2030 if they consider 2025 to be impractical.

We were interested in the progress that the four regional councils had made in setting objectives under the National Policy Statement and in updating regional plans to include limit-setting.

Variable progress with updating freshwater quality plans

The four regional councils have made variable progress towards implementing the National Policy Statement and updating regional plans to include limit-setting.

Horizons Regional Council has made the most progress in implementing the National Policy Statement through the One Plan. The One Plan became operative in December 2014 and aimed to integrate policy planning with regulatory and non-regulatory work to maintain and improve freshwater quality.

As noted in the Ministry's National Policy Statement implementation review, Horizons Regional Council largely considers the One Plan to have implemented the requirements of the 2014 National Policy Statement.

However, because the One Plan was drafted before the current National Policy Statement amendments were made, some parts of the plan "do not align neatly with the national policy and may require revision".36 To resolve this, the Council put in place a plan change in April 2016 to more fully address the requirements.

However, the One Plan remains unable to fully comply because its specified nutrient allocation limits are unachievable (particularly its nitrogen leaching limits). This has led to difficulties in assessing resource consent applications for some existing and new intensive farming activities. We discuss the effects of Horizons Regional Council's consenting approach and outline its proposals for addressing them in Part 9.

Waikato Regional Council has proposed a plan that will maintain and improve freshwater quality for the Waikato-Waipa catchment. The plan was notified in October 2016, submissions on the plan have been received, and hearings are under way and scheduled for completion in September 2019.

In part, the Council chose this catchment first because the quality and completeness of the data best position stakeholders there to carry out the limit-setting process. The Vision and Strategy for the Waikato River (discussed in Part 2) was a large part of this consideration.

Waikato Regional Council collaborated with the community to prepare a plan that reflects community aspirations. Waikato Regional Council intends to review the plans for the remaining catchments by 2025.

Environment Southland's proposed Southland Water and Land Plan was notified in 2016. It aims to either improve freshwater quality or maintain it at its current level until freshwater objectives and limits for all freshwater management units are set. Submissions on the plan have been received, hearings held, and Environment Southland has decided the provisions of the plan. A new version of the proposed plan was publicly notified on 4 April 2018.

Environment Southland has emphasised the importance of understanding the states and trends of its freshwater resources and the full range of factors that can influence this. It has significantly invested in a comprehensive science program, which has set back the original schedule for limit-setting. However, Environment Southland has now committed to a revised schedule that will set and implement objectives and limits for all five of its freshwater management units by 2025.

Taranaki Regional Council had made less progress in implementing the National Policy Statement when we met with it. Stakeholders we spoke to said that it had not been transparent about progress. Since then, the Council has advanced its plans to implement the National Policy Statement through a Freshwater and Land Management Plan. These plans are clearly set out in a publicly available Progressive Implementation Plan for the National Policy Statement. This plan will see objectives and limits set and implemented for all freshwater management units by 2025.

In the meantime, other aspects of the National Policy Statement are being implemented through ongoing initiatives. These include setting and publishing targets for swimmable rivers and lakes, and work to incorporate mātātauranga Māori into freshwater planning and monitoring for the Taranaki region.

Staff at the four regional councils cited challenges affecting their ability to set and implement new objectives in a more responsive manner. These include the Resource Management Act's considerable requirements, as well as recent changes in the regulatory environment.

Continued changes to the National Policy Statement are an example of this. Regional councils have welcomed the National Policy Statement because it addresses the lack of central government guidance for freshwater quality management.

However, changes to the National Policy Statement since 2011 (such as the freshwater values bottom lines introduced in 2014 and targets for swimmable lakes and rivers introduced in 2017) have caused uncertainty for regional councils struggling to keep up with, and put in place, those changes.

Council staff said that they needed to be empowered to facilitate and put in place community decisions that are most relevant to their regions. They felt that this did not preclude central government from providing more support for them to do so.

Council staff suggested that central government should bring regional council experts together to prepare a "toolbox" that provides different ways of implementing community decisions about freshwater quality. Overall, they expressed, and we agree, that regional council efforts to prepare their own approaches to the new requirements can be co-ordinated more efficiently.

Each regional council needs to respond to the particular challenges of its region (including geography, historical freshwater quality, and the relationships councils have with iwi/hapū and their stakeholders), and the progress that is made must be widely visible to the community.

We are satisfied that the four regional councils have made genuine and ongoing efforts to keep their communities informed of planning preparation, developments, and progress so that freshwater quality management decisions and expectations are transparent and well understood.

Including wider parts of the community in setting objectives

Under the Resource Management Act, regional councils must consult with their communities so that the objectives are influenced by community values. The Ministry's implementation guide for the National Policy Statement makes this requirement explicit. It suggests that regional councils collaborate with their communities or improve the way they consult.

Regional councils also have obligations under legislation (including the Resource Management Act, the Local Government Act 2002, and Treaty settlement legislation) that they need to consider when making management decisions about specific water bodies. Some Treaty settlements include co-management and co-governance arrangements between regional councils and iwi.

The International Association for Public Participation has developed a spectrum of participation. At one end, entities inform their communities about what they are doing. At the other, entities empower communities to make those decisions (see Figure 5).

Figure 5
Spectrum of public participation

The figure presents a spectrum of the different approaches an organisation can take when interacting with the public. At one end of the spectrum is "inform", which is a one-way approach where the organisation simply provides the public information. At the other end of the spectrum is "empower", which is an approach that places final decision-making in the hands of the public.

Increase level of public impact Arrow pointing to the right
  Inform Consult Involve Collaborate Empower
  figure5-inform.jpg figure5-consult.jpg figure5-involve.jpg figure5-collaborate.jpg figure5-empower.jpg
Goal To provide balanced and objective information in a timely manner To obtain feedback on analysis, issues, alternatives, and decisions. To work with the public to make sure that concerns and aspirations are considered and understood. To partner with the public in each aspect of the decision-making. To place final decision-making in the hands of the public
Promise "We will keep you informed." "We will listen to you and acknowledge your concerns." "We will work with you to ensure your concerns are directtly reflected in the decisions made." "We will look to you for advice and innovation and incorporate this in decisions as much as possible." "We will implement what you decide."

Source: Adapted from the International Association for Public Participation (2014), IAP2's public participation spectrum.

The approaches the four regional councils chose for consulting with their communities about setting objectives varied. Council staff said that this was because of statutory requirements and the councils' views of what would best meet the needs of their different communities. We support more collaborative consultation approaches. However, just because some councils are less collaborative than others does not mean they are less effective.

Waikato Regional Council adopted an approach for the Wai Ora Plan process that was characterised by collaborative decision-making and "giving the pen" to the community. Collaborative processes are more empowering for communities than consultative ones. They are also the most resource- and time-intensive for council staff and stakeholder representatives. Waikato Regional Council's approach so far has resulted in its community understanding what is in the plan and what is needed to meet its freshwater objectives.

We saw efforts from Environment Southland to involve the community more. It recognised that learning from the community and getting its commitment is critical to improving freshwater quality.

Environment Southland's efforts to gather and understand community views more effectively included running workshops with stakeholders about the need to collaborate and how they could achieve that. Environment Southland also ran community engagement sessions where council staff could share knowledge and increase levels of engagement.

In 2018, Environment Southland, in partnership with Te Ao Marama Inc (the Ngai Tahu ki Murihiku natural resource management agency), adopted a collaborative approach to implementing the National Policy Statement. This includes an update to the Southland Water and Land Plan.

A panel made up of Southland community members (called the Regional Forum) is developing recommendations for an agreed programme to update the plan. The programme will also integrate on-the-ground action with the regulatory framework by including regulatory and non-regulatory methods to achieve the community's values and objectives for freshwater.

The programme will be reviewed and approved by a governance group comprising regional council and iwi representatives. The council will decide whether to adopt the approved programme.

Taranaki Regional Council's approach to community engagement is more consultative than collaborative. The Council keeps its community informed of developments through online reporting and print media, and has iwi representatives on its Planning Committee. However, council staff have generally retained control of drafting plans and policies.

Stakeholders we spoke to acknowledged the efforts of the Council to consult and discuss issues with them but felt that its approach limited their ability to have their views and concerns clearly reflected in draft plans and policies. They wanted the opportunity to be involved from the beginning instead of just giving feedback on a draft document.

Since we last saw the Council, it has sought to facilitate tangata whenua input into the plan review processes by establishing a "Wai Māori working group". The group is intended to have a particular focus on identifying cultural values, policy development by co-design, limit-setting, and establishing mātauranga Māori monitoring methods.

Stakeholders have mixed views on Horizons Regional Council's approach to consultation on the One Plan. The farming sector, in particular, felt that the Council's engagement with it was less effective than it should have been.

However, many stakeholders (including representatives from the farming sector) consider that Horizons Regional Council's approach has improved since then. Many now consider Horizons Regional Council their "go-to place" for advice and assistance with sustainable land-use practices. This will be important as the Council works through the challenges that implementing the One Plan has raised.

Lessons from Waikato Regional Council's approach to collaboration

In preparing Waikato's Wai Ora Plan for the Waikato-Waipa catchment, Waikato Regional Council invested heavily in a collaborative process with its community.

In 2013, Waikato Regional Council and the five river iwi, who share leadership and co-management responsibility for the Waikato River, began to form a collaborative stakeholder group. A project steering group (Te Rōpu Hautū) ran the process to form the group.

Through consultation with multiple stakeholders and the community, Te Rōpu Hautū identified the desired make-up of the collaborative stakeholder group. This included ensuring that the group reflected a balance of social, cultural, economic, and environmental interests (the four well-beings), demographic and geographical balance, and members with the right mix of skills, influence, and mandate.

The collaborative stakeholder group included delegates from a range of sectors, including dairy, horticulture, energy, environment, local government, and Māori interests. For Waikato Regional Council, this meant that those most affected by the changes were preparing the policy and providing input.

The collaborative stakeholder group and the joint steering group were supported by members of the Technical Alliance, who "analysed, summarised and presented environmental, social, cultural, and economic information about the rivers and the consequences of the different land management scenarios explored".

The Technical Alliance was supported by a seven-member Technical Leaders Group, which used specialists to fill knowledge gaps in fields such as science and economic modelling (see paragraphs 7.67-7.69 for more on the work of the Technical Leaders Group).

Figure 6 shows the relationships between the collaborative stakeholders group, Technical Alliance, and decision-makers.

Figure 6
The Healthy Rivers: Plan for Change / Wai Ora: He Rautaki Whakapaipai project structure

An organisational chart that shows the relationships between the different groups involved in preparing the Wai Ora Plan.

Figure 6 The Healthy Rivers: Plan for Change / Wai Ora: He Rautaki Whakapaipai project structure.

Source: Adapted from Waikato Regional Council (2014), Terms of Reference – Collaborative Stakeholder Group, page 10.

The independent chairperson carried out an evaluation that found widespread acknowledgment that the collaborative process had increased members' understanding of the complexity of issues facing other sectors. The evaluation suggested that this translated into "a willingness among some sectors to take more account of issues outside of their sector and to work more collaboratively with other sectors". Furthermore, "there is no doubt among members that without the collaborative process, some important and innovative thinking would not have emerged".

We spoke to stakeholders involved in the collaborative stakeholders group and people supporting it. They had a good understanding of the views of different parts of the community and were inclined to compromise.

However, collaborative plan processes are not without drawbacks. Collaboration is resource intensive for councils and the stakeholder representatives, often taking much longer than traditional planning processes.

Representatives of the collaborative stakeholders group, Technical Alliance, Waikato Regional Council staff, and iwi informed us of some of the challenges and lessons that they learned throughout the process. Other regional councils might find them useful to consider.37

One lesson was that gathering and documenting technical inputs (such as scientific papers prepared for the collaborative stakeholder group) should have started earlier, when members were forming relationships and sharing their views. This would have made the process more efficient.

Waikato Regional Council staff and iwi leaders felt a level of discomfort in not controlling the drafting of the plan. For example, there was a view that council staff should have had greater involvement in writing the plan rules to ensure that they were workable and enforceable.

Waikato Regional Council leadership also acknowledged that, because the Council focused on working with the five river iwi that had Treaty settlements, it did not initially consult with another important iwi. This affected the work stream and highlights the need for regional councils to identify and involve all relevant parties at the outset.

Freshwater quality improvement is a social issue, which will need a response from the community as a whole. Decision-making processes that involve the community more collaboratively can help regional councils to understand the social nature of freshwater quality issues.

We encourage councils that are considering carrying out more collaborative processes to consider the challenges and lessons Waikato Regional Council learned throughout its collaboration process. In particular, councils need to involve all relevant parties and to carefully consider how staff and representatives of the community can best contribute to decision-making.

We encourage Taranaki and Horizons Regional Councils to consider the benefits of taking a more collaborative approach to setting and implementing freshwater quality objectives with their communities. A more inclusive approach is likely to increase support from the community and enable them to contribute more effectively.

Using modelling to set objectives

Knowing the costs of freshwater quality management programmes is more than simply accounting for the money spent on regulatory and non-regulatory programmes. The National Policy Statement requires regional councils to consider social, cultural, and economic implications when setting freshwater quality objectives.

Although the policy statement does not specifically require regional councils to do social and economic modelling, we see value in the way two of the four regional councils use these tools when setting objectives.

Environment Southland has a lead role in the Southland Economic Project, which includes looking at the economic effects of different limit-setting scenarios. A main part of the project considers the effects that managing nutrient loss has on farming profitability.

Environment Southland uses this information to model different limit-setting scenarios. It is also developing its understanding of how the economy influences community outcomes in the Southland region. It is committed to sharing this information with the community during the limit-setting process.

Environment Southland views freshwater quality as not just an environmental, economic, cultural, or scientific issue but as all these. Therefore, improving freshwater quality needs a response from the entire community.

Waikato Regional Council, through the Technical Leaders Group, engaged specialists from a wide variety of organisations to fill knowledge gaps and inform the work of the collaborative stakeholder group. This included completing an economic model that the collaborative stakeholder group used to shape its policy package for the Wai Ora Plan.

The model was designed to consider the potential social and economic costs of the changes or mitigations needed to deliver improved freshwater quality. The model was able to consider different levels of desired freshwater quality and predict costs at the farm, catchment, regional, and national levels.

The Technical Leaders Group commissioned and published documents explaining the model. These provided the social, cultural, economic, and environmental results of different scenarios, discussed the costs and levels of mitigations, and described what would happen if there was not a policy change.

Taranaki Regional Council has modelled the costs and benefits of various approaches to nutrient management as part of its Freshwater and Land Management Plan process. This includes economic, environmental, and administrative costs and benefits on farm.

Environment Southland, Waikato Regional Council, and Taranaki Regional Council are finding value in carrying out this work, which we consider to be good practice. In our view, there are opportunities for all regional councils and unitary authorities to share and learn from different experiences.

We encourage the four regional councils to continue to build on their understanding of the social and economic implications of freshwater quality management in their regions.

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

37: Many of these can also be found in the independent evaluation report commissioned by Waikato Regional Council: Kinnect Group (2017), Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora Collaborative Stakeholder Group evaluation – Summative report, at