Local Government Magazine
3 Waters

New thinking on freshwater management

Pooling_Resources_Time_for_a_fresh_approach

Will collaborative processes help find the best ways to manage our country’s freshwater? Ruth Le Pla tests the waters.

A new government report on freshwater management highlights yet again the delicate path that regional authorities must tread in balancing environmental, economic and iwi aspirations for some of the most beautiful, productive and culturally significant parts of our country.

When the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) released the new consultation document just days before the annual Conferenz Freshwater Management and Infrastructure Forum in Wellington recently, it ensured lively and sometimes pointed debate on implications for local authorities.

Next Steps for Fresh Water sketches a raft of proposals, suggests specific questions for debate and calls for submissions by Friday April 22.

Many of the proposed changes could be captured as amendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) 2014. This sets out the objectives and policies for freshwater management under the Resource Management Act 1991.

Specific proposals include:

  • Excluding stock from water bodies;
  • A focus on freshwater management units rather than regions;
  • Making the macroinvertebrate community index (MCI) a mandatory method of monitoring ecosystem health;
  • Strengthening te mana o te wai as the underpinning platform for community discussions on freshwater; and
  • A government proposal to invest $100 million in improving water quality in lakes, rivers and aquifers.

(For a more detailed list see the box story “Next Steps: Summary of key proposals”. To read the full report search under ‘Next steps’ at www.mfe.govt.nz/publication-search.

The timing of the release of the report prompted several forum speakers to confess they had not been able to fully digest its implications or impact.

But it would fair to say that it does not address some of the largest and most difficult conversations. These include how to make fair decisions on the allocation of water, which model to employ to do this, how to transition to such a model, and the trade-off between the needs of communities in the metros and provincial authorities.

As one person commented after the forum, “who’s talking about the big stuff?”

Speaking in Wellington, Land and Water Forum (LAWF) chair Alastair Bisley made it clear his comments were “preliminary”.

While much progress had been made in certain respects, he said, “we don’t yet have a clear sense of the detailed direction that the government is taking”.

On the plus side, Alastair said the “critical, important and foundational points” that the LAWF has recommended to the government, will “by and large” be put in place once the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 gets the big tick from parliament.

“They’ve provided a system whereby you can take national and local decisions and see how that works,” he said.

“The NPS-FM allows objectives and limits to be set and the Bill gives a template for collaborative processes for regional councils and others in order to take decisions about what the objectives and limits will be in different freshwater management units, or catchments, around the country.

“Even if you don’t like little bits of the package, all of that in my book is a massive step forward,” he said. “It’s huge.”

Yet there’s a “lot less” in the Next Steps report on details on “engine room” stuff such as the integrated catchment management system which the LAWF has said is needed if people want to be able to manage within set limits in order to achieve set objectives.

“It’s rather unclear exactly how the government sees the way forward. They have yet to say how they see a system of good management practice being set up.”

Nevertheless, Alastair says there have been some important hints.

“They’ve said they’ll help industries put this together. But how they envisage that system will be made to happen around the country and exactly how the responsibilities on the different players should work, how it is transmitted through the mechanisms of the RMA, they’ve yet to make a full statement.”

Likewise, he says iwi rights and interests, and allocation are both works in progress. So too is the issue of transfer – “the dynamic management systems which we think are necessary”.

“All of this stuff is super-hard. We found it very difficult and so I’m not surprised that they [the government] do. What they have just proposed reflects an intention to do further work on elements of it.”

Compromise: Freshwater Management

In a press release welcoming the Next Steps report, LGNZ noted that decisions about water management must be made at the local level.

LGNZ president Lawrence Yule underscored the importance of collaborative processes. He pointed out that many councils are already working with iwi in this way to develop water plans.

Yet, as several speakers pointed out at the Wellington forum, collaborative approaches bring their own set of solutions and challenges.

Natasha Garvan, a senior associate at Bell Gully, has been immersed in this space for some time. She told forum delegates that, unlike consultative processes, good collaborative work can often help people from very different groups to “own” each other’s problems.

As she sees it, the plus-points for collaboration include an opportunity to build understanding and trust; the chance to create enduring solutions; and for participants to have greater control over any compromises.

For some, it’s that last word that sticks in the craw. When it comes to our lakes, rivers, aquifers and wetlands, many individuals, iwi, businesses and entire communities are playing for very high stakes.

If compromise lies submerged in the collaborative process, we’d better all respect the possible repercussions for others.

(That’s notwithstanding the academic argument that in a freshwater context any discussions may perhaps not be deemed truly collaborative because they must take place in the context set by the NPS-FM and the National Objectives Framework [NOF].)

Natasha says one farmer told her the collaborative approach felt like a “grieving process”.

“And that needs to be borne in mind when you’re thinking about collaborative processes in a freshwater context, particularly, as you may be affecting livelihoods, retirement plans and whole communities.”

She tells of one case where farms had to be shut down and a whole street of people had to leave their houses empty for 10 years.

In Natasha’s view, collaborative processes in a freshwater context boil down to three essential elements:

  • Who bears the cost?
  • Over what timeframe will we achieve objectives?
  • And what rights to discharge or take water will be allocated – or, in some cases, existing rights taken away?

Natasha says there’s considerable diversity in the way collaborative processes are managed throughout the country. Even prior to the LAWF – which many uphold as a landmark example in its own right – a lot of collaborative processes were being undertaken around the country.

That number has increased in recent times with local government examples including Canterbury, Wellington and the Waikato among many others.

Social before science

Graham Sevicke-Jones took up a role as director science and information at Environment Southland at the start of this year.

Previously manager, environmental science at Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC), he says local bodies often jump in with quick responses to specific water-related issues without always understanding the wider set of underlying priorities from a community point of view.

“You might see, for example, nitrogen levels going up rapidly in the waterways,” he says, “so we look at how we can fix that. But it may actually be something else that needs to be dealt with.”

He says collaborating with individuals and groups outside of council opens up much wider opportunities to explore whole-system issues and ideas.

“Unless you get into quite involved community conversations you often… end up looking at specifics around sediment or an 
E. coli problem, for example, without looking at how the whole system might fit together.”

Graham says GWRC thought it had a pretty good handle on its community’s values until it started working with whaitua committees a few years ago.

Members of the whaitua (Maori for ‘designated space’) include representatives from Te Upoko Taiao – the Natural Resource Committee, iwi, local authorities and people from the community who have an interest in land and water management issues.

Committee members use their understanding of agriculture, biodiversity, tangata whenua, recreation, and urban and economic interests to prioritise objectives for land and water management in the catchment area.

“We started understanding quite quickly that what they were actually asking for wasn’t around the science side of it,” says Graham. “They were looking for things around the social dynamics of their community, how they might provide for more jobs, a better society in general and, inevitably, issues around degradation of the environment.”

As a result, Graham says he’s become very interested in looking at issues such as integrated catchment and area management, and how the terrestrial environment impacts on freshwater management.

Otago Regional Council’s Fraser McRae underscores the need to drop the council-speak. He’s the council’s director policy planning and resource management. People like to make decisions based on everyday values and norms, he says. So his council firstly describes issues as social problems and then underpins its thinking with science.

“So we talk about swimming holes for grandkids. There aren’t British Imperial Units for measuring those things so then we’ve got to work out with the science team how deep a swimming hole needs to be.”

I think you think…

Over at Greater Wellington Regional Council, manager environmental policy Jonathan Streat recalls a sticky-note exercise in which three groups of people were asked to write down what they thought of each other, what they thought the others thought of themselves and what they thought of themselves.

“It was the first time they’d sat in a room and started to understand the way they perceive each other,” he says. “By putting it on bits of paper they started to convert an instinctive position into something that was tangible and that could be converted into points of change.

“This was the beginning of what we hope will be a collaborative journey going through a process of co-design, co-development and co-problem-solving. You’ve got to get to know each other before you get to the problem definition space, let alone a solution.”

Jonathan describes collaboration as “a current discussion” in a “very fashionable space”. Yet, as he sees it, the concept brings with it all sorts of changes around power.

“There’s no doubt about it: we’re talking about power and the delivery, the decision-making and the distribution of power in our society,” he says. “It’s about who’s involved in collaborative processes and decisions around who is in and out.”

Regional councils, he says, must simply step up and deal with these changing power dynamics.

And they’d better ditch any notions of an easy ride. Tensions between different parties’ ideas and values are likely to manifest themselves as critiques of process. “So a nirvana is not achievable,” he warns.

In a similar vein, Graham Sevicke-Jones warns that one of the constants with collaborative processes is that they fall over.

“You just have to have a system in place to pick them up and move on because this all involves people, and people tend to have bad and good days,” he says. “There are some times when, for some unknown reason, a committee just doesn’t work.

“It’s much easier working in a room with a few computers and no other people but the reality is you’re trying to get informed decision-making.”


  • Ruth Le Pla attended the Freshwater Management and Infrastructure Forum in Wellington courtesy of Conferenz.
  • To download a copy of the Next Steps for Fresh Water consultation document search under ‘Next steps’ at 
www.mfe.govt.nz/publication-search.

Next Steps: Summary of key proposals

Fresh water and our environment

Amend the NPS-FM to improve direction on:

  • exceptions to national bottom lines for catchments with significant infrastructure
  • using the macroinvertebrate community index as a mandatory monitoring method
  • applying water quality attributes to intermittently closing and opening lakes and lagoons
  • what it means to ‘maintain or improve overall water quality’.

Exclude stock from water bodies through regulation.

Economic use of fresh water

Require more efficient use of fresh water and good management practice.

Iwi rights and interests in fresh water

Strengthen te mana o te wai as the underpinning platform for community discussions on fresh water.

Improve iwi / hapu participation in freshwater governance and management.

Better integrate water conservation orders (WCOs) with regional water planning and allow for increased iwi participation and decision-making on WCOs.

Freshwater funding

Set up the ‘Next Steps for Freshwater Improvement Fund’.

Source: The Ministry for the Environment’s Next Steps for 
Fresh Water consultation document.


This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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