Freshwater quality and availability

This page outlines the state of New Zealand’s fresh water and the steps being taken to protect this important resource.

What is happening now

The Government has a comprehensive work programme to improve New Zealand freshwater management and is currently consulting on the following proposals:

  • amendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2014
  • excluding stock from waterways by regulation.

Find out about these and the new Freshwater Improvement Fund on the Clean Water package 2017 web page.

Read the consultation document on the proposals. Submissions close at 5pm on Friday 28 April 2017.

See the Water quality for swimming categories (attribute states) in detail.

Freshwater quality 

By world standards New Zealand has clean, abundant fresh water. Our rivers, lakes and wetlands support a unique array of flora and fauna and are highly regarded for their recreational value.

However, water quality in some urban and rural areas has degraded and is coming under increasing pressure as land use intensifies. This has implications for aquatic life, drinking water supplies, cultural values, water-based recreation and the economy.

This image shows a summary of 10 year trend analysis of the river condition in New Zealand in terms of Nitrate, aquatic insects, dissolved reactive phosphorous and bacteria (E-Coli).


For national data on the current state of freshwater quality in New Zealand see the Freshwater chapter of Environment Aotearoa 2015, and Statistics New Zealand freshwater reporting.

Check out water quality in lakes and rivers in New Zealand [Land and Water Aotearoa website]

Check our interactive Water quality for swimming maps to see if your local rivers and lakes are suitable for swimming in.

Freshwater availability 

New Zealand has an extensive network of freshwater systems including mountain streams, braided and meandering rivers, lakes and groundwater resources of varying sizes.

Demands for fresh water are increasing in some regions and cities, and shortages can be felt at certain times of the year. The national weekly water allocation for irrigation, households, manufacturing and other uses nearly doubled between 1999 and 2010. Hydroelectric power generation also uses large volumes of fresh water and can affect the availability of fresh water downstream.

Increasing demands combined with current trends in climate change reinforce the need for careful management to protect the supply of water in New Zealand.

Water is not always where we need it, when we need it.

We need to manage our water carefully because in some places we are approaching limits to the amount of water we have available to use.

Source: Aqualinc 2010 DoC 2010


For national data on water quantity and availability see the Freshwater chapter of Environment Aotearoa 2015.

View live river flow, rainfall and groundwater levels in your region or find out how much water is being used and for what [Land and Water Aotearoa website]

Cleaning up and protecting fresh water

The Ministry is working with regional and local councils to ensure the quality and use of our fresh water is well managed. Government policies and regulations direct this work.

  • In 2010, the Government introduced regulations that require 98 per cent of water taken directly from its source to be metered by 2016. This will help councils more accurately account for the amount of water in use or available in their region.
  • Penalties under the RMA have doubled for anyone taking, damming or diverting water or discharging contaminants if it is not allowed by the regional council’s plan.
  • In 2011, the Government introduced a National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) to require regions to maintain or improve water quality.
  • The NPS-FM was updated in 2014 to require regional councils to account for all water takes and sources of contaminants. It sets national minimum acceptable standards of water quality for ecosystem and human health.
  • Water conservation orders can be used to protect a waterway’s water quality, amenity values, or significant natural characteristics and habitats.
  • The National Environmental Standard for Sources of Human Drinking Water requires regional councils to consider the effects of activities on drinking water sources in their decision-making.
  • The Government’s Fresh Start for Fresh Water Clean-up Fund has contributed to seven community initiatives to clean up some of New Zealand’s most iconic waterways.
  • The Freshwater Improvement Fund commits $100 million over 10 years to improve the management of New Zealand’s lakes, rivers, streams, groundwater and wetlands. It supports projects, with a total value of $400,000 or more, that help communities manage fresh water within environmental limits.

These images show clean-ups and protection work in rivers and lakes on the North and South Island.

Some are initiatives to clean up and protect lakes and rivers. Others are Water Conservation Orders.

Funding sources

The Government provides funding for projects targeted at cleaning up or protecting freshwater bodies.

Freshwater Improvement Fund

Community Environment Fund

Community Conservation Partnerships Fund [Department of Conservation website]

Find out more

Land Air Water Aotearoa website

Statistics New Zealand Environmental Indicators website