Freshwater Reforms

Topics covered in this article: Business Owners, Farming & Horticulture, Property, RMA & Local Government

Rachael Zame

Senior Associate

Senior Associate

Phone: +64 7 927 0522


Bachelor of Laws, Bachelor of Science, University of Otago 


The Government has announced its proposals for national direction on freshwater issues.   

Titled “Action for Healthy Waterways” the proposals are wide-ranging and aimed at halting degradation of New Zealand’s waterways, so that water quality is materially improving within five years, and restored to a health state within a generation. 

Broadly, the proposals cover the following:

  • Speeding up regional councils’ planning processes so that plans required under the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) are all in place by 2025;
  • A new NPS-FM which prioritises the health and well-being of the water itself (Te Mana o te Wai), ahead of essential human needs (like drinking water) and other uses; setting new bottom lines for water quality and ecosystem health; providing stronger protection for wetlands and higher standards for swimming spots;
  • ‘Interim’ controls on intensification on the basis of impacts on water quality – including dairy conversions, forestry to pasture,  and irrigation expansion above 10 hectares; winter grazing expansion over a minimum threshold; and vegetable growing expansion (which would require a resource consent);
  • Further national level regulation of stock exclusion from lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands; winter grazing; excessive use of nitrogen; stock holding areas and feedlots.  The government is also proposing a mandatory requirement for all farms to have a farm management plan with a freshwater module;
  • New standards and requirements for wastewater and stormwater operators, including regulated standards for wastewater treatment plants. 

We briefly examine some of these proposals below.

Speeding up water management processes

The NPS-FM already requires councils to develop freshwater plans to fully implement the NPS, but currently provides an implementation deadline of 2030 provided that councils have a progressive implementation plan underway to achieve that date.  The changes will require these processes to be in place earlier, by 2025. 

To achieve that, the Government proposes further amendments to the Resource Management Act (RMA) to provide for Government-appointed freshwater commissioners to form panels with local councillors and tangata whenua nominated representatives to consider council plans, hear submissions and make recommendations.

Councils would still be responsible for developing plans in consultation with local communities, and would make final decisions on the plans following recommendations from the hearing panels. However, there will be restricted avenues for appeals.

The review of the RMA recently announced is not intended to affect these proposed changes.

New draft NPS-FM

A draft replacement NPS-FM has been released for consultation.  It contains further direction around the meaning of Te Mana o te Wai.  Although based on the current NPS-FM, it has been restructured and redrafted, including the removal of all the existing objectives and replacement with one single objective, which is to ensure resources are managed in accordance with the following priorities:

(a) First, the health and wellbeing of waterbodies and freshwater ecosystems;
(b) Second, the essential health needs of people; and
(c) Third, the ability of people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural wellbeing, now and in        the future. 

Policies have also been redrafted and new attributes have been added which are to be monitored and maintained or improved, including nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), sediment, and dissolved oxygen in rivers and lakes. 

Holding the line and stronger oversight of farming practices

The Government proposes to tightly restrict land use change and increases in farm inputs in order to ‘hold the line’ until regional councils have fully implemented the new NPS-FM (by 2025). 

This includes restrictions on increasing irrigated pastoral, arable or horticultural production above 10 hectares; changes in land use above 10 hectares to dairy-support or dairy; and from woody vegetation or forestry to pastoral use; as well as restrictions on winter grazing expansions.  Activities would only be granted resource consent if they do not increase nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment or microbial pathogen discharges above 2013-2018 baseline levels. 

In addition, it is proposed that farmers must have farm plans with a freshwater module, which would need to be certified and audited for compliance.

Additional regulations are proposed relating to stock exclusion, protection for wetlands, winter grazing, stock holding areas, sacrifice paddocks and feedlots. 

Farmers – check if you might be affected by interim actions

The Government recognises that by 2025 Regional Councils should have processes in place to reduce contaminant losses, through regional plans which will fully implement the NPS-FM. 

However, it also proposes immediate interim action for certain catchments to reduce excessive nitrogen leaching and ‘hold the line’.  In the Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Hawke’s Bay regions, the Government has identified the following areas (but seeks feedback on whether further catchments should be added):

  • Bay of Plenty - Upper Rangitaiki River,
  • Waikato - Piako River and Waihou River;
  • Hawke’s Bay - Taharua River (in Mohaka catchment).

The discussion document covers further catchments in Northland, Taranaki, Wellington, Tasman and Southland – so pastoral farmers in those areas should check whether they might be affected. 
It has excluded Canterbury, Otago, Tukituki (Hawke’s Bay), Manawatu and Waikato/Waipa on the basis that rules or proposed rules are addressing nitrogen leaching in those areas (but ‘reserves the right’ to extend interim measures to those catchments if council processes are not achieving reductions within 5 years). 

The Government is consulting on 3 options for interim measures within the currently listed catchments:

  • setting a nitrogen-loss cap with farmers above thresholds having to reduce to below the cap;
  • setting a national nitrogen fertiliser cap; or
  • requiring farmers in catchments with high nitrate-nitrogen levels to have freshwater modules in their farm plan showing how they will rapidly reduce nitrogen leaching, and auditing their progress. 

The proposals (particularly options 1 and 2) are recognised as being complex, and farmers will need to carefully consider what this may mean for their operations. 

Having your say:

You can find more information about the Government’s proposals here:

During September the Ministry for the Environment is holding a series of public meetings around the country about the proposals.  You can find the dates and locations of those meetings here:

Submissions on the proposals can be made online or in writing before 17 October 2019.  If you require assistance drafting a submission or have any other questions about the reforms, please contact our Resource Management team. 

6 September 2019