Roles and responsibilities for managing freshwater in New Zealand

How the water management system works in New Zealand and who is involved in making decisions about water quality and quantity.

Councils make decisions about water bodies in their areas

Regional councils

Your regional council is responsible for managing water quality and quantity in your region.

This involves managing:

  • how to make sure water quality is maintained or improved
  • how much water can be taken for use
  • what can be discharged into water
  • activities that affect the beds of water bodies and surrounding ecosystems.

It does this through regional policy statements and regional plans. These set out the objectives that the regional council is trying to achieve and the rules and methods they’ve put in place to get them there.

Your regional council also has responsibility for monitoring water quality in your region to check that it water quality is being maintained.

City and district councils

Your local city or district council also has a role to play because it manages many of the activities that can affect freshwater.

For instance it’s responsible for:

  • providing clean drinking water to towns and cities
  •  maintaining wastewater and storm-water systems.

A few councils are unitary authorities. These have the roles of both regional, and city and district councils.

National level laws and regulations affect what councils can do

There are a number of laws and regulations set by the Government, which councils need to follow when making decisions about how to manage freshwater.

See About freshwater laws and regulations

Iwi and hapū are partners in water management

The Treaty of Waitangi created a partnership between the Crown and Māori, and iwi and hapū are often involved in managing water in the lakes and rivers that they have a connection to.

The ways in which iwi and hapū are involved varies across the country, depending on local circumstances.

Some examples of the different arrangements are:

  • the Waikato River Authority, which is an independent co-governance and co-management body and acts as the custodian of the Vision and Strategy for the Waikato River
  • the Whanganui River, which is recognised as a legal entity in its own right, with two Pou Tupua appointed to represent the interests of the river (one by the Crown, and the other appointed by Whanganui River Iwi).

In some areas, no formal arrangements exist but councils talk to their local iwi and hapū about decisions that affect them. Many iwi and hapū are working towards arrangements that better reflect the partnership envisaged by the Treaty of Waitangi.

The RMA also provides specific opportunities for iwi to input into freshwater management processes.  One opportunity is through Mana Whakahono a Rohe: Iwi Participation Arrangements, which are agreements to assist tangata whenua and local authorities to discuss, agree and record how they will work together under the RMA.

Opportunities for community involvement

Throughout the regional and district planning processes there are opportunities for communities to be involved.

The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (Freshwater NPS) tells councils that they need to identify the values that are important to their community, through discussion with the community (including tangata whenua) for the freshwater bodies in their region. Many councils involve their communities beyond the value identification process, and run full collaborative planning processes to make planning decisions about freshwater. Keep an eye on your regional council website for opportunities to be involved.

At a minimum you will be able to have your say on a proposed plan. When a regional council makes or changes a regional plan it is required to notify the public. That’s your opportunity to make a submission. The public can also sometimes make submissions on individual resource consent applications.

Ultimately, it will be your regional council that makes decisions about the freshwater bodies in your region. So if you’re interested in how your local river or lake is being managed, you should find out more about what your regional council is doing and how to get involved.

Find out about your local council’s plan for implementing the Freshwater NPS

Find out more about RMA processes and how to get involved 

Environment Court can take a fresh look at decisions if people disagree with them

The Environment Court is there to resolve conflict over resource management decisions. Sometimes if people are unhappy with a resource management decision – in a regional or district plan, or an individual resource consent – they can appeal it to the Environment Court. In some cases, the Environment Court may be asked to consider resource consents directly.

The Environmental Legal Assistance Fund (administered by the Government) provides not-for-profit groups with financial assistance to advocate for an environmental issue of public interest at resource management cases at the Environment Court, and at boards of inquiry.

Find out more about the Environment Court [Environment Court of New Zealand website]

Find out more about the Environmental Legal Assistance Fund

Role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is an independent officer of Parliament with wide-ranging powers to investigate environmental concerns.

The Commissioner's job is to hold the Government to account for its environmental policies and actions. It has reviewed many water-related matters.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment website