Part 3: Understanding of water resources needs to improve

Reflecting on our work about water management

To effectively manage water resources, good information is essential. By good information, we mean information that is relevant, reliable, timely, accessible, and, ideally, comprehensive. Good information supports effective governance, engagement, and accountability.

During our work, we saw incomplete information about the state of our freshwater resources at a national level. This led to limitations in understanding where the risks lie and so where to target regulatory intervention and investment.

The Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand are responsible for environmental reporting at the national level. Their report Environment Aotearoa 2019, along with commentary from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment,13 highlighted the gaps in our knowledge of several environmental issues, including the effects of water pollution on human health and of land use on water quality.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment recently reported his findings on New Zealand's environmental reporting system. The report noted that "Ours has been a passive system that has harvested whatever data is there and done the best it can to navigate what's missing … when we try to find out what's happening on our land or what's happening to our water, there are huge gaps."14

This builds on points the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment made in his Commentary on Our Land 2018, in which he noted the lack of a requirement to collect information on the state, trend, or functioning of the environment at the national level:

… there is a distinct lack of obligation for management agencies to systematically collect information on the state, trend, or functioning of the environment. Individual agencies collect the information they require to carry out their functions, but there is no overarching requirement to collect information at the national level.15

In addition, we have previously reported concerns that public organisations that provide water-related services have limited information about the assets they own.16 We also found that these organisations often have limited information about the risks of those services being compromised. This leads to high levels of uncertainty when developing sustainable responses to water-management challenges, as well as making decisions about what, when, and where to invest and when to engage with communities and stakeholders.

A national picture of the state of freshwater quality would support a more strategic and integrated approach

In our work on managing freshwater quality,17 we noted that there are difficulties in using data collected by regional councils to build a national-level picture of freshwater quality. Although the four regional councils that we looked at measure a common set of variables, there are differences in how they measure those variables. Data collected through these different approaches cannot easily be combined and has resulted in a national-level picture that lacks detail.

We consider that the Government and New Zealanders need a detailed national picture of freshwater quality to help develop national-level freshwater quality policy and to monitor the effects of that policy over time.

No public organisation has accountability for developing a strategy to address shortfalls in information about our freshwater quality at the national level, to consider how it will be funded, and to decide what systems and tools are needed to collect quality data.

We acknowledge that work is under way to improve the quality of national data about our freshwater resources and how information about freshwater is reported and used. For example, regional councils and the Ministry for the Environment are working on the Environmental Monitoring and Reporting project (the EMaR project).

The EMaR project is exploring the standardisation of methods for collecting and sharing data, as well as management and exchange protocols to allow regional data to be interpreted at a national level. The aim of the EMaR project is to use Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) to make environmental data collected by regional councils more widely available.18

Regional councils have also been leading work to bring greater consistency to environmental monitoring. Recent work on the National Environmental Monitoring Standards programme is an example of regional councils working with the Ministry for the Environment to measure, process, and archive environmental monitoring data consistently on a national scale.

Information gaps can limit the ability to make well-informed decisions

While we need to understand the gaps in information at a national level, it is also important that public organisations understand what gaps there are in their own information, whether those gaps need to be filled, and, if so, what plans they have to fill them.

We looked at how three councils (Dunedin City Council, Porirua City Council, and Thames-Coromandel District Council) manage their stormwater systems to protect people and their property from the effects of flooding.19

We found that, to date, the three councils have had an incomplete understanding of the flood risk in their districts. They have based much of their assessment of flood risk on information collected after a flood, rather than on what might happen in the future under different scenarios.

The three councils also had gaps in their understanding of the current state of their stormwater systems. For some time, we have reported that local authorities need to do more to formally identify their most important assets so they can prioritise gathering information about them.

These gaps limit their ability to make well-informed and deliberate decisions about how to manage those systems and what to invest in managing them. This means that the councils are unlikely to have had informed conversations with their communities about the potential risk of flooding and the cost of reducing that risk.

The three councils were already aware of some of the issues we identified and are at varying stages of making improvements in their understanding of the state of their stormwater systems and their flood risk. However, all three have more to do.

… high-quality information is essential to making good decisions. However, public organisations not only have to make good decisions but also demonstrate to the public that they have made good decisions. This is important to promote transparency, as well as trust and confidence in the public sector – Office of the Auditor-General (2018), Reflecting on our work about information, page 24.

Information needs to be understandable both to decision-makers and to those holding them to account

Communities need good information on the state of our freshwater resources and water-related services, and on how public organisations have performed water-management roles and responsibilities, so they can hold those organisations to account. The information held on our freshwater resources can be highly technical, making it challenging to present the information in a way that those making decisions and those holding them to account can readily understand.

In our report Sea Change – Tai Timu Tai Pari: Creating a marine spatial plan for the Hauraki Gulf, we noted that some project participants suggested that it might have been more effective to have them sit with the Stakeholder Working Group representatives and help frame and talk through the issues rather than having scientists and technical specialists respond to requests for scientific information.20

In our work on managing the effects on freshwater quality,21 we looked at how 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.

This type of reporting is needed for readers to fully appreciate the implications of the information, to support action needed to protect and improve freshwater quality, and to hold agencies to account for their performance.

We found that the four regional councils attempt to keep the public well informed about freshwater quality developments. However, they could improve the balance in the information they report – it is important that councils do not just report the "good news" stories. Balance is critical in building and maintaining trust with the community.

Good information depends on collecting quality data

Good information is underpinned by quality data. It provides an evidence base for setting strategic objectives and priorities, developing regulatory responses, better targeting investment decisions, monitoring and reporting on performance, and evaluating whether activities are achieving intended outcomes.

Part of managing any natural resource effectively and efficiently is knowing how much of it is being used. Large quantities of freshwater are currently used for irrigation in the agriculture and horticulture industries. About 65% of water permits are allocated to irrigation. This accounts for about 51% of the freshwater permitted for use.

In 2010, the Government introduced regulations that required the people and organisations that use large quantities of freshwater to measure how much they take. This was done with water meters. Councils were required to oversee the installation of these water meters.

We looked at how Northland Regional Council, Hawke's Bay Regional Council, Otago Regional Council, Marlborough District Council, Bay of Plenty Regional Council, and Environment Canterbury tracked and measured freshwater used for irrigation. Our work included considering the quality of data collected from water meters, how the data was used, and whether this was leading to positive changes in the way water is used.22

We found that the quality of data collected from water meters can be poor, particularly when the data is collected manually. In our view, it is important for councils to have high-quality and timely data to ensure that water permit holders are complying with their permits. High-quality data can also help councils and the water permit holders to identify how they could use freshwater more efficiently.

There will always be some uncertainty

There will always be some uncertainty in understanding the state of water resources. Complexities in the systems and science of water mean that public organisations must sometimes make decisions based on the best available information. One of the main issues is "lag times". This is explained in the Ministry for the Environment report Our Freshwater 2017 from New Zealand's Environmental Reporting Series:

It can sometimes take decades, or even longer, for water (and any contaminants it contains) to cycle from the earth's surface through the ground to aquifers, and back to surface-water systems – this delay is referred to as lag time … This means some effects we see today are legacies of past activities, and the impact of our activities today, both positive and negative, may not be seen in our waters for decades.23

Public organisations managing water resources must find a way to carry out their roles and responsibilities with incomplete and imperfect information. This could be about current states and trends, such as the quality of freshwater and the views of communities, the condition of three waters assets, or the effects that future scenarios such as climate change might have on both natural and infrastructure assets.

Public organisations must also grapple with changes to risks over time and in the different values and preferences of current and future generations.

Our work on how councils addressed resilience and climate change matters in their 2018-28 long-term plans (LTPs)24 highlighted the challenges councils face when grappling with limited information and increasing uncertainty. We found that most councils are deferring making decisions about how to respond to the effects of climate change because there is too much uncertainty.

Many councils assumed in their 2018-28 LTPs that, in the next 10 years, the effects of climate change will not significantly affect their communities and that there will be no major natural hazard events.

Our review of councils' 30-year infrastructure strategies found that councils have a limited understanding of the risks posed by natural hazards and how climate change could affect their infrastructure assets. In general, councils have a limited understanding of the condition and performance of their assets – in particular, their three waters assets – and have a variable understanding of the likelihood of natural hazard events occurring.

This means that councils are limited in their ability to advise their elected members of these risks, communicate the risks to their communities, and make informed decisions about how to manage their assets in response and what it will cost to do so.

13: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (2019), Commentary on Environment Aotearoa 2019.

14: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (2019), Focusing Aotearoa New Zealand's environmental reporting system, page 4.

15: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (2018), Commentary on Our Land 2018, page 3.

16: Office of the Auditor-General, Matters arising from our audits of the 2018-28 long-term plans, page 5; Getting the right information to effectively manage assets: Lessons from local authorities, page 5; and Managing stormwater systems to reduce the risks of flooding, page 5.

17: Office of the Auditor-General (2019), Managing freshwater quality: challenges and opportunities.

18: LAWA is a web-based platform that displays state and trend information for freshwater monitoring sites throughout New Zealand.

19: Office of the Auditor-General (2018), Managing stormwater systems to reduce the risk of flooding.

20: Office of the Auditor-General (2018), Sea Change – Tai Timu Tai Pari: Creating a marine spatial plan for the Hauraki Gulf, page 24.

21: Office of the Auditor-General (2019), Managing freshwater quality: challenges and opportunities.

22: Office of the Auditor-General (2018), Monitoring how water is used for irrigation.

23: Ministry for the Environment, Our Freshwater 2017, from New Zealand's Environmental Reporting Series, page 23.

24: Office of the Auditor-General (2019), Matters arising from our audits of the 2018-28 long-term plans.