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.

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).


See a national overview and trends in the latest River condition indicator update

Check out the water quality in your local river [Land and Water Aotearoa website]

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


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.

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.

Community Environment Fund

Community Conservation Partnerships Fund [Department of Conservation website]

Find out more

Land Air Water Aotearoa website