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Water quality

New Zealand has a diverse range of aquatic environments from mountain springs to coastal estuaries, connected by an intricate network of rivers, lakes, wetlands, estuaries and groundwater systems.

By world standards New Zealand’s fresh water is good quality. Our rivers, lakes and wetlands support a unique array of flora and fauna and are highly regarded for their recreational value. Fresh water is essential for its power to provide life. Iwi/Māori have a special relationship with water which is recognised under the Treaty of Waitangi.

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

This section provides information on environmental reporting, policy and regulations, projects and partnerships, and guidelines and tools about water quality.

On this page:

Environmental reporting

State of the environment reports present a national picture of the quality of our waterways, and how they are changing over time, see:Water in New Zealand

Policy and regulations

In March 2013, the Government proposed a series of reforms in the paper Freshwater reform 2013 and beyond’. These proposals for reform build on and incorporate advice of the Land and Water Forum and the Iwi Leaders Group and its advisors.

As part of the proposals, the Government proposed a regulated National Objectives Framework. This sets national bottom lines to ensure all rivers and lakes are suitable for ecosystem health and human contact like wading and boating. This Framework will cover quality and quantity aspects of water management.

The Government’s Fresh Start for Fresh Water (FSFW) reform package was announced in 2011.  The FSFW reforms included the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2011 which requires regional councils to set limits to govern the allocation and management of freshwater quality and quantity. The FSFW reforms grew from the 2009 New Start for Fresh Water strategy.

The National Environmental Standard for Sources of Human Drinking Water reduces the risk of contaminating drinking water sources such as rivers and groundwater.

The proposed National Environmental Standard for On-site Wastewater Systems has been withdrawn. Further information can be found on the On-site wastewater systems page.

Projects and partnerships

The Government is committed to ongoing engagement with iwi/Māori on water management options. This is governed by obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Lake Taupo water quality issues are being addressed through the Lake Taupo Water Quality Protection Programme.

The Rotorua lakes have received funding from the Crown to establish the Rotorua Lakes Restoration Action Programme.

Seven other community projects to clean up water bodies are underway. See Funded projects for Fresh Start for Fresh Water Clean-up Fund.

The Dairying and Clean Streams Accord established water quality targets through a government/industry partnership. It was replaced in February 2013 by a new Sustainable Dairying Water Accord between all dairy companies.

The Sustainable Water Programme of Action (2003-2008) was a policy programme to improve freshwater management.

A stakeholder-led collaborative process was established under the Land and Water Forum in 2009.

Guidelines and tools

Ecological health – guidelines and tools help monitor and manage the freshwater ecosystems of New Zealand including lakes, rivers, periphyton, macroinvertebrates and fish. They include the ANZECC water quality guidelines.

The Cultural Health Index allows iwi/hapū to assess the cultural and biological health of a stream or catchment of their choosing.  This information will help those managing water such as regional councils.

Guidelines for managing waterways in rural areas help council staff and farm advisers improve their skills in managing their land.

A national protocol for state of the environment groundwater sampling in New Zealand provides a step-by-step protocol for collecting groundwater samples.

The microbiological water quality guidelines for marine and freshwater recreational areas assists councils/agencies to better inform their communities of the risks of swimming at their bathing beaches.

Surface water quality” provides best practice guidance to RMA practitioners on managing water quality and impacts on it under the Resource Management Act 1991 (on the quality planning website).

Find out more

  • See the fresh water page for related reports, policies, regulations, projects, partnerships, guidelines and tools about fresh water.
  • For a full list of publications relating to water refer to the water publications page.

Links to other Ministry resources

Last updated: 11 August 2014