This year continues a trend of transformation for the stormwater sector, building on several decades of change across key environmental, governmental, social and economic themes. Here, Roger Seyb looks at proposed regulatory changes that will affect three waters infrastructure and how stormwater professionals can recognise the intent of the policy direction, use skills to work out the extent the policy can be achieved and balance the inevitable trade-offs.
Three Waters reform is progressing with four new proposed Water Services Entities; the Resource Management Act is under review; and the new Natural and Built Environment Act (NBEA) and Strategic Planning Acts (SPA) proposed. Greater sustainability of buildings will begin to be implemented through a long-term review programme of the Building Code and Act.

Climate change management is to be defined through our first climate change emissions budgets and a Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act (MRCCAA) is proposed. These will require New Zealand to consider how to proactively manage sources of ‘carbon’ as well as design for, and adapt to, the effects of climate change.

A new National Policy Statement for Freshwater and a new National Environmental Standard for Freshwater were introduced last year.

In this article we will examine these different and interconnected themes of reform and change, their impacts at a regional and local government level, and how we as a stormwater sector can rise to the challenge and the opportunity they present.

Climate change regulations

In 2019 the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act (CCRZCA) was passed, bringing comprehensive changes to the Climate Change Response Act (CCRA) from 2002. Among a raft of significant requirements of Government to develop and implement policies for climate change adaptation and mitigation, was the establishment of the independent Climate Change Commission (CCC).

The CCC is tasked with setting an emissions budget for New Zealand, in order for us to meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement, and to prepare national climate risk assessments on a six-yearly basis. The first of these risk assessments was prepared by the Ministry for the Environment and released in 2020. Of significance for the stormwater industry, several built environment risks were identified in this inaugural risk assessment’s top 10.

They were B1 Risks to potable water supply (quality and availability) due to changes to rainfall, B2 Risks to buildings due to extreme weather events; and B4 Risks to stormwater and wastewater systems due to extreme weather events and sea level rise. Water supply was identified as a key factor to be considered in the government’s three waters reform process, as a pressing current and future risk.

The need for further understanding of interdependencies and interactions between infrastructure sectors was also identified, particularly that interacting risks and cascading impacts were poorly understood. For example, a chain of events occurs that starts with a flood that leads to damaging roads, the electricity grid and potable water supply.

Building for resilience

In 2020 the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) established the ‘Building for Climate Change Programme’, made up of two programmes; to reduce emissions and, to improve New Zealand’s climate resilience. Both of which will impact on the design, construction and operation of stormwater infrastructure.

Reducing emissions will entail; setting minimum levels of operational efficiency for new buildings - leading to less energy and water used, and setting limits for the amount of embodied carbon in new buildings - leading to more low carbon materials used, less materials used overall, and less construction waste.

MBIE has flagged that there will be mandatory reporting requirements for embodied carbon, and specified targets to achieve, to get building consent. Both the emissions and climate resilience programmes of work will entail changes to the Building Code to raise minimum requirements.

No changes are currently proposed for existing buildings, but this is flagged for review depending upon the contribution made for new buildings over time. Embodied carbon will need to be calculated and implemented for different building life phases - with a staged implementation to be completed by 2035.

These changes mean that we will have to think carefully about how we build stormwater infrastructure, and the materials we use and how we can re-use stormwater to reduce potable water demand. We will need to reduce the use of ‘carbon intensive’ materials like concrete and pipework or use lower emissions alternatives - industry is moving in this direction and we need to be aware of the options.

Resource management reform

Last year the Government’s independent Resource Management Review Panel carried out a comprehensive review of the RMA and released a series of recommendations for reform. The Review report recommended three separate pieces of legislation to replace the RMA; the aforementioned NBEA and SPA, and the MRCCAA.

The government has recently released a “discussion draft” of the initial sections of the NBEA, with the intention of introducing the NBE Bill and SP Bill to parliament in 2022 and the legislation passed by the end of the current Parliament.
Environmental outcomes under the NBEA
Within the Draft NBEA there is a clear direction to enhance the quality of the environment, which itself is a break from the past and the report terms “status quo bias”.

The draft identifies that the Minister for the Environment must set environmental limits and that regional plans promote a range of statutory environmental outcomes.

Of note to stormwater management, the outcomes that must be provided for include: Ecological integrity is protected, restored or improved; well-functioning urban areas that are responsive to growth; the mana and mauri (life force or essence) of the natural environment are protected and restored; providing infrastructure services to support communities; a reduction in risk from natural hazards and improved resilience); and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Strategic planning with the SPA
The RMA reform package also considers interactions in land use planning between the RMA, Local Government Act (LGA), Civil Defence Emergency Management Act (CDEMA) and the Land Transport Management Act (LTMA).

The new SPA is expected to be a major means of identifying land that will be available for urban development; land that should be protected; and the provision of infrastructure to meet growth. Regional spatial strategies will be required – which will include growth and development strategies, infrastructure provision, climate change mitigation and adaptation and response to natural hazards – all of which influence stormwater management.

To achieve coordination across different pieces of legislation, the regional spatial plans developed under the SPA will need to be consistent with the NBEA, the LGA, the CDEMA, the LTMA and the CCRA.
Managed Retreat and Climate Change Act
This new piece of legislation will provide a process for adaptation decision making (including for managed retreat), provide the means to address existing land-use rights, establish a process for how retreat will occur, and a process and fund for allocating the costs of retreat.

National Policy Statement on Urban Development

While not directly related to stormwater, the NPS-UD is indicative of the approach in urban growth where more intensification is expected. Urban land use will increasingly need to satisfy multiple outcomes (such as a greenspace being both a recreation area and for stormwater management) and be located on a smaller footprint (where the built form will be even more constrained).

NPS and NES-Freshwater

The National Policy Statement Freshwater (NPS-FW) and National Environmental Standard Freshwater (NES-FW) came into force in September 2020. The NES provides us an insight to how the wider packages of policy reform could develop.

Central to the NPS-FW is the concept of Te Mana o te Wai, which refers to the vital importance of water and sets a hierarchy of obligations. In order, these are; the health and well-being of water; the health needs of people; and the ability of people and communities to provide for their social, economic and cultural well-being.

In addition to giving effect to this, the NPS puts in place an expanded national objectives framework, with an overall objective to improve degraded water bodies and maintain or improve all other water bodies using the water quality bottom lines.

Particularly relevant to stormwater, the NPS and NES are aimed at providing greater protection to wetlands and streams from infilling and set out requirements for fish passage which will lead to bigger culverts. The definition of a wetland however, is causing uncertainty and may have the effect of developers avoiding areas of wet, pastoral land that would have been developed previously.

This signals a potential tension between the policy direction of environmental improvement and the practicality of implementing it. There are still questions around how we define and assess the many factors that contribute to a “good” quality environment, whether the management tools we have available can make a difference and whether the cost benefit of that is worthwhile?      

As stormwater professionals we have to recognise the intent of the policy direction, use our skills to work out the extent to which the policy can be achieved and put questions to the community of how to balance the inevitable trade-offs.  One significant challenge is for us to develop and implement practical, repeatable management tools.

Three Waters reform

The government’s Three Waters reform process has been underway for the last few years, with a number of key decisions to be made this year.

Reform of local government’s three-waters functions is also being considered. Cabinet has decided that there will be four Water Services Entities (WSEs) and that stormwater should be included in their remit. Not all stormwater assets and management will shift to the WSEs, and stormwater functions for Regional Councils will remain similar to how they are now. Councils had to decide whether to opt-in or out by the end of September 2021 and preparation for formation and operation of the new entities is proposed through 2022 and 2023.

Implications and considerations for stormwater management

Our existing stormwater systems will be squeezed between projected sea level rise and more intense rainfall. At the same time, we will be expected to achieve better environmental outcomes and “do more with less” as we interface with multiple technical disciplines and work in smaller project footprints.

Achieving better environmental outcomes from stormwater planning and decision making will require better understanding of the underlying drivers of cause and effect, and development and implementation of more refined catchment management plans.  The need to contribute to wider community outcomes and integrate our stormwater plans and projects across disciplines will increase.

The need to consider embodied carbon in our projects will affect all elements of the project life cycle; our material choices, our methods of construction, the potential to rehabilitate or repurpose existing infrastructure, the re-use of materials.

The range of skills required from a stormwater professional is set to broaden and there is expected to be additional resources needed across the water industry.

Keeping up-to-date with all the change could include: Understanding the amount of embedded carbon in different materials, construction methods and project operational phases and getting familiar with contaminant modelling tools, for better attribution of cause-and-effect issues and targeted adaptive responses.

It also includes refining how to better understand flooding and coastal hazards, their effects and triggers for changing management approaches over time and early collaboration across Councils, agencies and Government departments, to build a wide picture of the many moving parts of reforms, and how best to respond to their impacts.

Given all of the changes to our industry, the ways we will work and the methods we will use, the challenge ahead of us is enormous – and so is the opportunity!
About the Author
Roger Seyb

Senior Technical Director - Water Resources

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