Clarification of the Essential Freshwater programme implementation requirements

Councils, industry leaders and farming sector stakeholders have sought clarification on aspects of how the requirements of the Essential Freshwater programme work in practice. 

We are working on providing detailed guidance on these aspects. Below are some clarifications we have already provided as responses to specific questions through the implementation programme. 

This guidance is intended to supplement the Factsheets which should be referred to first. 

Rivers and waterbodies - further definitions and clarification 

Definition of waterbodies for stock exclusion

  • Stock are required to be excluded from rivers (including creeks), including those that change course or flood, if the river has a bed more than one metre wide within the land parcel. The bed of a river is defined in the RMA as “the space of land which the waters of the river cover at its fullest flow without overtopping its banks”. 
  • Stock need not be excluded from “ephemeral flows” which are “temporary flows that exist briefly and immediately only after a period of rainfall or snow melt”. 

Note that the regulations require stock exclusion, not permanent fencing. 

How the NES-F and NPS-FM apply to river reclamation 

The NES gives reclamation a discretionary activity status, meaning councils will have full discretion to approve of, set conditions for, or decline any resource consents that will involve it. However, the NES sets minimum standards, and councils may opt to add stricter rules to reclamation (such as making it a non-complying activity).

The NPS-FM requires councils to assess any activity that could lead to the loss of rivers. They will consider whether it is absolutely necessary to conduct the activity in that river environment (using the functional need test); and if it is, whether the adverse effects of the activity can be managed, applying the effects management hierarchy. Alternative options which will not adversely impact the river should be thoroughly investigated (eg, planning a new development around rivers rather than reclaiming, piping or diverting them).   

Further defining ‘extent’ and ‘values’ in relation to rivers

  • Extent refers to the length of the river and the area that it occupies. 
  • Values refers to the existing or potential qualities of the river which include but are not limited to ecosystem health, indigenous biodiversity, hydrological functioning, mahinga kai and amenity values.

Implementing Te Mana o te Wai

Why priority is placed on the health of the water over human health needs and what this means for human health needs

The intent is that regional councils can lead actions to restore and preserve the balance between the water, the wider environment and the community. 

Councils will achieve this through their freshwater management decisions. Applying a hierarchy of obligations that protects the water for its intrinsic health needs (including its quality and associated freshwater ecosystems) in the first instance, will enable better protection for the second obligation (the health needs of people, such as drinking water). 

A key purpose of this hierarchy is to shift thinking in how we view and manage our freshwater. Making this the first priority in freshwater management does not mean that councils will ignore the health needs (or other needs) of people.

What prioritising the health and wellbeing of waterbodies and freshwater ecosystems means in practice

In practice, the hierarchy applies most to local authorities in conjunction with the other provisions of the NPS-FM, such as when implementing the National Objectives Framework or provisions related to wetlands, rivers and fish passage. 

The hierarchy of obligations will inform how councils set their:

  • limits
  • objectives
  • environmental outcomes
  • target attribute states
  • and identify their values when implementing the NPS-FM.

In particular, councils, working with tangata whenua and communities, have to identify values and set limits that prioritise protecting the health and wellbeing of the water.  

Once limits are set to provide firstly for the rights of the water, the limit setting process will apply to the essential health needs of people, such as drinking water, and finally to other uses.

Wetlands definitions

How a ‘wetland’ is defined in the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA)  

  • A wetland includes permanently or intermittently wet areas, shallow water, and land water margins that support a natural ecosystem of plants and animals that are adapted to wet conditions.

The Essential Freshwater regulations use a more refined definition, making a distinction between:

  • ‘natural wetlands’, to which the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater regulations apply, and 
  • ‘natural inland wetlands’, to which the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management polices apply.

For the purposes of the NPS and NES:  

Constructed wetlands

  • Constructed wetlands are considered ‘natural wetlands’ under the NPS-FM only if they were constructed to offset impacts on, or restore an existing or former natural wetland.

Natural inland wetlands

  • Natural inland wetland means a natural wetland that is not in the coastal marine area

Small wetlands 

  • Wetlands smaller than 0.05ha can be recognised under NPS-FM even if they don’t contain threatened species
  • Regional councils may use the stringency clause (part 3 3.1(2)(a) of the NPS-FM) to recognise small wetlands such as seepages.  

The effects management hierarchy in the NPS-FM does not replace the direction to ‘avoid, remedy, mitigate’ in the RMA

The effects management hierarchy is the internationally-agreed best-practice approach to managing adverse environmental effects. It’s not intended to replace the requirement in the RMA’s purpose to ‘avoid, remedy or mitigate’ adverse effects; instead it provides an ‘order of operations’ to direct decision-makers’ approach to this requirement.

Further defining specified infrastructure and using wetlands as stormwater infrastructure

Drainage and flood works can be classified as specified infrastructure if the works fit the definition of “specified infrastructure” in the NPS-FM. This can include infrastructure identified by the regional council following the process in clause 3.22 (1)(b). 

Regional councils must be satisfied that any proposed specified infrastructure will provide significant natural or regional benefits, that there is a functional need for the specified infrastructure in that location, and that the effects of the activity are managed through applying the effects management hierarchy (NPS-FM Clause 3.22 (1)(b)). 

Any new drainage infrastructure or flood works that fits these criteria would be a discretionary activity (NES regulation 45) and subject to the effects management hierarchy. Minor maintenance of specified and existing infrastructure is a permitted activity (subject to conditions), otherwise this maintenance is a restricted discretionary activity and subject to the effects management hierarchy. 

When considering if a natural wetland can be used for the disposal of stormwater councils need to consider, among other things, how this would change the hydrological regime of the wetlands and any adverse effects on the values of the wetland. It may not always be appropriate to use natural wetlands for such purposes and constructed wetlands are a better option.

Biodiversity offsetting

How aquatic offsets and compensation should be measured

The Ministry for the Environment will develop technical guidance on offsetting and compensation specific to aquatic environments such as rivers and wetlands. In the meantime:

Current best practice guidance is available and should be applied for biodiversity offsetting and compensation as a guide, noting that the NPS-FM and NES also require consideration of values other than indigenous biodiversity such as ecosystem health, hydrological functioning, mahinga kai and other Māori freshwater values, and amenity values.  

Best practice guidance resources include: 

Note that the LGNZ guidance approaches the topic using the “avoid/remedy/mitigate” terminology of the Resource Management Act. Whereas the EIANZ guidance aligns with the international best practice approach of ‘avoid, minimise, remedy’ which is the basis of the approach for the effects management hierarchy.

Nitrogen toxicity vs nutrient effects of nitrogen 

The NPS-FM has requirements for managing different types of nitrogen in different types of waterbodies.

Nitrogen affects waterways in two ways:

  • as a nutrient fuelling plant growth
  • as a toxicant affecting how animals grow and survive. 

Nitrogen can act as a nutrient fuelling growth of aquatic plants, periphyton (slime) and bacteria. This can become a problem when excessive nitrogen contributes to excessive or nuisance growth of plants. When these plants die and are broken down by microbes, oxygen is consumed leaving none for aquatic animals to breathe. 

 Nutrient effects of nitrogen are managed in the NPS-FM through the:

  • periphyton attribute
  • total nitrogen attribute for lakes
  • requirement to manage nitrogen levels to provide for other aspects of ecosystem health (such as macroinvertebrates) 
  • requirement to manage nitrogen levels to achieve environmental outcomes in nutrient-sensitive downstream receiving environments. 

Nutrient effects occur at lower concentrations of nitrogen than toxic effects. The toxic effects of nitrogen are managed through the attributes for nitrate and ammonia toxicity. The toxicity attributes are based on lab trials measuring the effect of nitrate and ammonia on growth or survival of animals. These effects happen at higher concentrations than nutrient effects. So, it may be possible to meet the nitrate and ammonia toxicity bottom lines (which only protect against toxic effects), while still experiencing problems with ecosystem health, such as excessive plant growth.