Essential Freshwater Package release, comment from NIWA published by the Science Media Centre

The Government has released an Action Plan for Healthy Waterways, which aims to restore rivers and lakes within a generation.

The plan proposes new requirements to improve freshwater including setting higher standards for swimmability in summer, interim controls on land intensification and a higher bar on ecosystem health.

Dr Scott Larned, Chief scientist freshwater, NIWA, comments:

"The basic premise of Essential Freshwater is that the existing regulatory tools such as the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) are not sufficient for preventing and reversing the degradation of freshwater environments."

"The proposals for stronger regulations that comprise Essential Freshwater were developed with input from freshwater scientists, iwi leaders, representatives from primary sectors and environmental organisations, regional council managers and other stakeholders in land and water management. Ideally, this broad range of input will lead to a broad base of support for implementation. The Essential Freshwater package is ambitious and will be challenging for councils and land and water users to implement, but it may be exactly what is needed to initiate or accelerate large-scale improvements in freshwater environments.

"New Zealand has some persistent problems with water quality and ecosystem health in freshwater environments. These problems have been identified in Environment Aotearoa 2019 and earlier reports, and in numerous scientific publications from NIWA and other organisations. These are wicked problems in the sense that they have multiple causes, occur in complex and dynamic environments and involve trade-offs between ecological, social, cultural and economic values.

"The primary focus of the Essential Freshwater proposals is freshwater degradation associated with land-use practices. For example, elevated levels of heavy metals in urban streams are associated with land-use practices such as road use, and elevated levels of nutrients and sediment in rural streams are associated with fertiliser use, stock grazing, tillage and other farm practices. Reducing contaminant concentrations will require changes in land use practices. However, several challenges must be addressed before we can specify the land-use changes required with certainty. One of the challenges concerns gaps in our knowledge of land-use effects. These gaps are acknowledged in the Essential Freshwater package, along with the need to improve understanding through targeted science investments. A closely related challenge concerns long time-lags between land-use activities and adverse effects in freshwater ecosystems. In many catchments, contaminants generated by land use move through groundwater for decades before reaching rivers and lakes where their effects are observed. In these cases, the land-use regulations proposed in Essential Freshwater may have no detectable benefits for generations. This time-lag problem is recognised in Essential Freshwater through the adoption of Te Mana o te Wai as the water management framework, as intergenerational commitment to is a central tenet of Te Mana o te Wai."

"The proposed inclusion of multiple ecosystem-health attributes in a new NPS-FM could improve the range of freshwater values that are protected, including threatened and taonga species, fisheries and other ecosystem services, and native biodiversity. However, a substantial amount of work will be required to ensure that the ecosystem-health attributes can be measured accurately, linked to land-use practices, and predicted in the many freshwater environments for which no data are available.

"In addition to freshwater science, the Essential Freshwater package will require regulatory impact analyses, regional plan changes and other steps before it can be implemented. But first and foremost, it requires feedback through the submission process. NIWA’s freshwater scientists will review the details of the Essential Freshwater package and prepare a submission on technical issues. We encourage all stakeholders in land and water management to provide feedback, and all New Zealanders have a stake."

Back to Freshwater Update 82, October 2019


Chief Scientist - Freshwater and Estuaries