More challenges for regional water plans

Environment | Print Article

[Spring 2014]

For those whose work is reliant on water, particularly those in the rural environment, the changes to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS) mean another round of significant changes to regional plans is on the horizon following the initial round to give effect to the 2011 version. The NPS, which came into effect in 2011, sets out the policy framework guiding regional councils’ management of freshwater. Under the RMA regional councils are obliged to ‘give effect to’ the NPS, which sets a high threshold for compliance.

On 3 July 2014, the Minister for the Environment Amy Adams and Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy announced the changes to the NPS, involving the establishment of a National Objectives Framework (NOF) relating to water quality. The changes took effect on 1 August 2014.

Changes to the NPS 2011

Practitioners and users of water plans will now need to get to grips with a suite of new terms and concepts. The new NOF includes a set of ‘national values’ for regional councils to apply to freshwater bodies. The proposed national values include mahinga kai, water supply, fishing, animal drinking water, irrigation and hydro-electric power. As well as optional national values, there are two compulsory national values, being ‘ecosystem health’ and ‘human health for recreation’.

The NOF sets out ‘water quality attributes’ and corresponding numerical ‘attribute states’ that are to be managed for the two compulsory values. The attributes include matters such as total nitrogen and phosphorous, nitrate toxicity, dissolved oxygen, periphyton and E. coli. The NOF identifies attribute states on a scale from A through to D for each attribute, with D representing the ‘national bottom line’.

By way of example, the national bottom line for E. coli, an attribute of the human health (secondary contact recreation) value is an annual median of 1000mL, which is defined as sitting between a moderate and high risk of infection from exposure to water used for wading or boating (excluding immersion). These attribute states effectively put a numeric value on what is needed to achieve the desired ‘freshwater objective’. The requirement to identify freshwater objectives was first established in the 2011 NPS and is carried through in the new version.

The focus for managing water quality has changed from being on a ‘water body’ basis, to being instead on a ‘freshwater management unit’ basis. This is defined as either a water body, multiple water bodies or a part of a water body, depending on the appropriate spatial scale. The implication of this change in focus is that water quality over the whole unit may be aggregated, allowing for decline in some parts and improvement in others.

Regional councils must now identify what national values each freshwater management unit supports, determine the freshwater objective and then set the ‘attribute state’ (A through to D) for each attribute, to give effect to the objective. Where a freshwater management unit is below the national bottom line state of D for either of the compulsory national values, it may either qualify to be excluded from complying, or may be required to, on a transitional basis, comply.

The numeric attribute state can then be used to set ‘limits’ – which allocate how much of a particular contaminant can be used/discharged into the catchment of a particular freshwater management unit, while still ensuring that the freshwater objective is met. The setting of limits takes place in different forms – some places use a total catchment load, and others use a per hectare allocation for example.

In addition to the NOF framework, the changes to the NPS include a new section requiring that, two years after the NPS amendments take effect, regional councils have in place freshwater quality and quantity accounting systems sufficient to monitor progress in respect of freshwater objectives.

What happens next?

Regional councils must implement the amended NPS by either December 2015 or in a staged fashion, by changing regional plans so that plans:

  • identify ‘freshwater management units’ for all water bodies;
  • include the compulsory national values, and other values for each of the freshwater management units;
  • identify freshwater objectives for each of the units;
  • assign ‘attribute states’ A – D for each of the freshwater management units based on the value and the freshwater objective;
  • determine the limit for what can be allocated in order to still meet the attribute state and freshwater objective.

These plan changes will need to go through the standard Schedule 1 process, with formal submissions, hearings and rights of appeal to the Environment Court.