Need for continued regional efforts to improve freshwater health

17 April 2023

The latest government freshwater report shows the need for continued regional efforts to improve freshwater health.

Te Uru Kahika, the collective of New Zealand’s 16 regional and unitary councils, say the recently released ‘Our freshwater 2023’ report from Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ demonstrates the value of continuing their work to improve, protect, and enhance freshwater.  

“Collectively, regional and unitary councils have been investing significantly in scaling up our efforts to better understand freshwater health through research and monitoring, to better protect freshwater resources through policy changes and compliance activities, and to work with others through engaging with our communities, iwi and hapū, businesses, government departments, and food producers on solutions. 

“Across Aotearoa, regional councils continue to expand catchment restoration and land management programmes, and significant change is underway through plan changes and the implementation of freshwater reforms,” says Te Uru Kahika Regional Councils Chief Executive Officers Group representative Dr Stefanie Rixecker. 

Our freshwater 2023 outlines how increasing pressures on freshwater are affecting water quality, ecosystems, and people throughout New Zealand. It draws on data from regional and unitary council monitoring programmes, as well as data from other science organisations. The report is stark in its findings and by design does not comment on solutions.  

Since 2011, central governments have provided direction for freshwater management through the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (NPS-FM). The most recent NPS-FM issued in 2020 increased emphasis on ecosystem health and Māori freshwater values, seeking improvements in freshwater quality within a generation.  

“Our freshwater 2023 provides a national level overview of challenges facing rivers, lakes, and groundwater using data up to 2020. Regional and unitary councils are already working at a pace not seen in recent history to implement positive change in freshwater management. 

“Since 2020, all regional and unitary councils have increased resourcing for freshwater and are working alongside tangata whenua and their communities to improve freshwater ecosystems.  

“Councils are also working to implement new national regulations regarding wetlands, fish passage, intensive winter grazing, and caps on synthetic nitrogen use. Within the next two years, regional and unitary councils will release revised freshwater plans which must clearly state how freshwater management in the region will reflect Te Mana o te Wai and will use a set of at least 22 scientific attributes that will establish local baseline and target states. 

“Regional and unitary councils will be talking to communities about the revised plans over the next year and it’s a significant opportunity for New Zealanders to get involved in the future of our freshwater. We urge people to have their say in their local policy development and regional council websites have more detail on how,” says Dr Rixecker. 

Our freshwater 2023 notes that data and research gaps hinder the quality of state of the environment reporting. Regional and unitary councils have been proactively working to address identified data gaps through initiatives such as the Environmental Monitoring and Reporting (EMaR) Programme, a partnership between Te Uru Kahika, Ministry for the Environment, Stats NZ, Department of Conversation, and Cawthron Institute.  

EMaR Chair Dr Tim Davie says the programme is behind a number of projects, including the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa project that makes the most up-to-date freshwater information for regions, catchments, and individual sites freely accessible on the LAWA website, helping to inform local communities and national reporting. 

“We look forward to continuing to be part of work to further improve the quality, consistency, and availability of data and information for core environmental indicators. Ultimately helping to better direct efforts for the management of freshwater and giving effect to Te Mana o te Wai. 

“Freshwater systems and pressures are interconnected. It will take time, in some cases decades, to see significant improvements in environmental outcomes as a result of the work happening now.  

“Reports such as Our freshwater 2023 are timely reminders of the importance of sustained efforts to care for our most precious resource – freshwater,” says Dr Davie.