When we think of New Zealand’s majestic natural landscapes and its seeming abundance of clean, clear and beautiful freshwater rivers, lakes and streams - at a glance we might believe we live in a ‘100% Pure’ paradise. The truth however is that our waterways are not nearly as pristine as many of us would like to believe.

The New Zealand government recently announced its Action for Healthy Waterways (Ngā mahi mō te whakaora wai) package, which sets out a new direction for national freshwater management - and the rules and regulations to enforce it.

The package was developed in response to growing concern that our waterways are under severe threat of damage and degradation due to population growth and pollution, from land-use intensification in urban and rural environments. For example, 94% of urban streams and 82% of streams in pastoral areas are not suitable for swimming at least some of the time.

A vast body of technical evidence, over 17,500 public submissions, and numerous policy revisions were considered in the development of the Action for Healthy Waterways package.

In this article, we decipher the detail and breakdown some of the key points that we think all New Zealanders should be aware of:


The action plan

A three-stage action plan has been developed which includes the following measures:

Stop further degradation – now

  • Protection for wetlands, streams, and fish passage – the aim of these measures is to avoid any further loss of wetland and stream ecosystems and restore fish habitat.
  • Reduce excessive nitrogen use through a cap on synthetic fertiliser (190 kg N/ha/year) – with the aim of reducing losses of nitrate to groundwater through excessive fertiliser application.
  • Targeted rollout of enforceable freshwater farm plans beginning with at-risk catchments – the aim to work with farmers to develop environment plans specific to their farm and reflecting local climate, soils and other environmental factors.
  • From July 2023, all dairy cattle and pigs must be excluded from waterways more than a metre wide – removing stock from waterways is seen as an action with immediate benefits in terms of improving the microbiological quality of surface waters.
  • Controls on intensive farming and minimum standards for feedlots and stock holding areas – aimed to prevent excessive nutrient and sediment losses into surface waterways.
  • Continued policy work to support freshwater quality improvements.

Material improvements in water quality – within five years

  • Stock exclusion for cattle, pigs and deer in low-slope areas, some hill country wetlands, and all other areas that are intensively farmed.
  • Minimum three-metre fence setbacks from rivers and streams – with the aim of providing a buffer from waterways to prevent stock access and provide filtration of surface runoff from paddocks.
  • Requirements for real-time measuring and reporting of data on water use – to improve the understanding of water use patterns in a more timely and understandable way.
  • A new planning process for freshwater for faster and nationally consistent regional plans – however questions remain over whether sufficient resources are available to undertake the significant amount of work required of regional councils throughout New Zealand.
  • New or updated regional plans are notified by December 2024, setting out implementation of the new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and the new National Environmental Standard for Freshwater.

Restore New Zealand’s waterways to a healthy state – within a generation

  • Mandatory and enforceable freshwater farm plans in place for all commercial farms.
  • Communities work towards meeting the requirements of region-specific freshwater plans
  • Freshwater is recovering and on track to meet national bottom lines and community aspirations.


Changes to regulatory mechanisms

Implementation of the Action Plan will be supported in a five-prong approach through the following regulatory mechanisms:

These regulatory changes will enable the enforcement of your obligations under the Action Plan.


What this means for you

Regional Councils: The package will require significant council expenditure (estimated at $42 million a year) with the highest costs expected to fall on Waikato, Canterbury and Otago due to issues arising from intensive dairy farming. The increased workload will include updating regional policy statements and plans, engagement with stakeholders, working with farmers to implement freshwater farm plans and compliance monitoring. Amendments to the RMA will provide for a more streamlined freshwater planning process and enable councils to meet the 2024 deadline to notify new or updated regional plans and policy statements. Further details on the streamlined planning process are described below.

Farmers: Farmers will also face significant costs (estimated at $124 million annually) stemming from implementation of stock exclusions from waterways, freshwater farm plans, reduced fertiliser use, and water use monitoring. Some immediate support is available for the primary sector in government funded programmes.

Mana whenua: The new requirements in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and National Environmental Standards for Freshwater are about strengthening Te Mana o te Wai, improving water quality and ecosystem health. Te Mana o te Wai is about integrating tangata whenua values into freshwater management and prioritising the health and wellbeing of water bodies over the needs and wants of people and other uses. Further policy work is also planned to address iwi/Māori rights and interests in freshwater.

The New Zealand public: The wider benefit to New Zealanders is estimated at $359 million annually, through recreation benefits (including improved swimmability and reduced public health risk), the retention of ecosystem services from wetlands (including flood attenuation and water storage), and improved ecosystem health outcomes.

Streamlined freshwater planning process

The Resource Management Amendment Bill passed its third reading in June 2020 and once it receives Royal Assent it will provide for a streamlined freshwater planning process. We have summarised the proposed process below:

  • Regional councils must publicly notify freshwater planning instruments that give effect to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020 by 31 December 2024.
  • Within six months of public notification of a freshwater planning instrument, regional councils must provide all relevant reports and submission information to the Chief Freshwater Commissioner.
  • The Chief Freshwater Commissioner (who is a current or retired Environment Court Judge) convenes a freshwater hearings panel who make recommendations back to the regional council, which can include matters outside the scope of the submissions.
  • The relevant regional council then has a duty to consider the recommendations and notify decisions on them.
  • If the regional council rejects the freshwater panel recommendations, then appeal rights are provided for submitters to the Environment Court. If the regional council accepts the freshwater panel recommendations, then submitters may appeal to the High Court only.

Changes from the 2019 Consultation Freshwater Package

Public consultation on the new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and National Environmental Standard for Freshwater was undertaken over a period of two months ending in October 2019.

A number of changes have been adopted to address the feedback provided from; the public consultation, the Independent Advisory Panel, and in response to COVID-19. Key changes include:

  • Strengthening the nitrate and ammonia toxicity water quality standards to provide protection for 95 percent of species (up from 80 percent).
  • Delaying consideration of a dissolved inorganic nitrogen bottom-line water quality attribute state for 12 months.
  • A water quality attribute state was not set for dissolved reactive phosphorus to recognise the high level of natural variation for this attribute. However, there will be a new action-planning attribute for dissolved reactive phosphorus, meaning that councils will need to monitor and manage to make sure levels of dissolved reactive phosphorus don’t increase.
  • The stream setback requirements were reduced from an average of five metres to a minimum of three metres.


Get in touch

So, there’s a lot to consider and think about for protecting and restoring our waterways, and a variety of implications for all New Zealanders. We have a large team of freshwater planners, scientists, and ecologists who can assist with the new freshwater planning process. Get in touch with us below to find out more, and to discuss further about what the Action for Healthy Waterways package may mean for you.


Garrett Hall

Technical Director - Environments

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Sarah Blair

Environmental Scientist

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Email Sarah Blair