Action for healthy waterways: Our proposals, your views

River and mountain scene

New Zealanders want to swim, fish, gather mahinga kai and enjoy freshwater as our parents and grandparents did. We also need clean water to drink and irrigation to support a sustainable economy.

But our water is suffering as a result of urban development, agriculture, horticulture, forestry and other human activities. There is also a lack of robust regulation, monitoring and enforcement.

The Government wants to improve the current management of freshwater. 

It is proposing new requirements that would:

  • strengthen Te Mana o Te Wai as the framework for freshwater management
  • better provide for ecosystem health (water, fish and plant life)
  • better protect wetlands and estuaries
  • better manage stormwater and wastewater, and protect sources of drinking water
  • control high-risk farming activities and limit agricultural intensification
  • improve farm management practices. 

We are seeking your views on the proposals. 

How to review the proposals and submit feedback

Discussion document 

Action for healthy waterways: A discussion document on national direction for our essential freshwater 

Summary document - this has an overview of the proposals.

Key proposals

We worked closely with the following advisory groups throughout the development of the proposals. They represent a broad spectrum of New Zealanders.

Advisory group reports

    Making a submission

    You can submit your feedback during the consultation period using one of the following options:

    1. Use our online submission tool. This is our preferred way to receive submissions.
    2. Answer the questions in the consultation document and email 

    The official closing date for submissions is Thursday 17 October 2019 at 5pm. However, submissions will be accepted for a further two weeks beyond that date, until 31 October.

    Information sessions

    We are holding information sessions around New Zealand to discuss these and other proposals we are currently consulting on. Together, the proposals will help us protect our environment and address the issues raised in Environment Aotearoa 2019.

    See the public meeting timetable

    See regional hui for iwi/Māori

    See the primary sector timetable


    Environment Aotearoa 2019

    For data and findings on freshwater from the 2019 state of the environment report see Fresh water [StatsNZ website]

    MfE reports

    Essential freshwater: Impact of existing periphyton and proposed dissolved inorganic nitrogen bottom lines

    A review of New Zealand studies into the cost of degradation of freshwater ecosystems

    A review of integrated assessment frameworks for environmental management

    Maps relating to proposals for excluding stock from waterways and reducing nitrogen loss [ArcGIS website]

    Extent of proposed low-slope land areas where stock exclusion rules would apply (relevant to section 8.5 of the discussion document)

    Map relating to option 1 for reducing nitrogen loss (relevant to section 8.4 of the discussion document

    Map relating to option 3 for reducing nitrogen loss (relevant to section 8.4 of the discussion document

    Consultant reports

    Identification of high-risk agricultural activities: national mapping of the location, scale and extent of winter forage cropping and intensive grazing on hill country land

    Sediment load reductions to meet suspended and deposited sediment thresholds

    Deriving potential fine sediment attribute thresholds for the National Objectives Framework

    Development of ecosystem health bottom-line thresholds for suspended and deposited sediment in New Zealand rivers and streams

    Impact testing of proposed sediment attribute: identifying erosion and sediment control interventions to meet proposed sediment attribute bottom lines and the costs and benefits of those interventions

    Modelling of mitigation strategies on farm profitability testing Ag package regulations on farm

    Modelling the impact of freshwater mitigation scenarios: results for the Ruamahanga catchment

    Impact of possible environmental policy interventions on case study farms

    Agricultural production statistics: Area of brassica grown, farm count and data 2018

    Consultation process

    1. Why is the consultation period so short?

    We know these issues are critically important to individuals and communities and we want to hear feedback from people through this consultation process. Environment Minister David Parker has heard the feedback from the first week of meetings, and has agreed to receive submissions for a further two week period past the 17 October deadline. This means submissions will be able to be provided up to 31 October.

    It’s important to remember that submissions don’t have to be long and you don’t have to comment on every single part of the package. People can focus on the areas most important to them, or give us an overall comment.

    2. What are the next steps after consultation?

    Following consultation, all the submissions received are provided to an Independent Advisory Panel for review and they will provide advice to the Government by the end of the year. Work on analysing the impact of the proposals will continue. This will be provided to Ministers before they make final decisions. We expect Ministers to make final decisions early next year and for regulations to be in force by the middle of the year.

    3. Why weren’t there any representatives of the primary sector on the freshwater advisory groups?

    Members of the advisory groups were chosen for their expertise, not to represent specific sector or lobby groups. However, a number of members are farmers and/or involved in agri-business. Primary sector organisations were involved in the Land and Water Forum, which spent a decade working on these issues and provided a starting point for these proposals.

    National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management

    4. How can you take a one-size-fits all approach through a national policy statement when every catchment and every farm is different?

    We recognise that every catchment and every farm is different. We know of hundreds of catchment groups and many thousands of farmers already taking action, but some farmers, land developers and urban infrastructure operators are lagging behind. Some catchments are improving but others are not.

    The Freshwater National Policy Statement sets minimum standards for all waterways, to meet New Zealanders’ expectations. How those standards will be achieved locally will be determined through regional planning and collaboration on the ground, including catchment groups the Ministry for the Environment is already supporting, and through individual farm plans.


    5. Why are rivers with hydro-electricity generation schemes excluded?

    It is not correct that hydro-electricity generation schemes are excluded from the NPS-FM, or from requirements to maintain and improve water quality. Councils will still have to set targets for ecosystem health attributes in consultation with their communities that maintain or improve these rivers. The only difference is that, for six major hydro schemes, it is proposed that regional councils will have more flexibility to preserve their generation capacity, storage and operational flexibility by maintaining water quality below a national bottom line (if they choose to). Councils would have to improve these rivers and lakes to the extent possible without affecting renewable electricity generation, and can still control with activities like spraying and mulching lakeweed if this is appropriate. 

    Storing water for generation means holding back some of a river's flow until it's needed. This can contribute to excess algal growth downstream that would otherwise be flushed away by higher flows. 

    We are seeking feedback on whether this proposal effectively balances freshwater health needs and the need for renewable electricity generation to meet climate change obligations.

    Proposed bottom lines for nutrients

    6. How did you decide what the new nutrient limits should be? What’s the science behind them?

    The Science and Technical Advisory Group (STAG) has provided advice about where the nutrient bottom lines should be set.

    High nutrient levels (nitrogen and phosphorus) damage ecosystem health. Reducing nitrogen run-off has benefits not only for ecosystem health but can also reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.

    The current rules (in the current NPS-FM) already require limits on nitrogen – through limiting the growth of periphyton, or slime; limits on the level of nitrogen in lakes; and through rivers having to be better than the toxicity level of 6.9 milligrams per litre. In some regions, for example Canterbury, the regional council is already requiring farmers to take steps to reduce nitrogen loss to meet these limits.

    However, the Science and Technical Advisory Group has recommended a new bottom line at a level of 1 milligram per litre, that would give freshwater ecosystems a better chance of supporting healthy populations of aquatic species and other life.

    As a rough guide this means muddy/sandy bottom streams and rivers will have to meet the same kind of nitrogen reductions as stony bottomed streams.
    Because these are hard decisions, the Government is seeking input from communities and more analysis of the impact of a new bottom line would be before making any decisions.

    The Government is open to exploring a range of options.

    The STAG is made up of 16 of New Zealand’s leading freshwater scientists from crown research institutes, universities and councils. Members are listed on the Ministry for the Environment website.

    7. Where is the economic analysis of the impact of these new nutrient bottom lines?

    We have done initial economic impact analysis on aspects of the package but know we need to do more before final decisions are taken. In particular we know we need to understand the impact of particular bottom lines on local communities and catchments.

    It is impossible to finalise the impacts of the package without knowing what the final package is. In the meantime, there is a lot of interim analysis available in the discussion document. 

    It is also important to note that how things impact communities will be determined by the timeframes for implementation of the new proposals. While some of these are specifically set in the proposals; others are for communities to determine through council planning processes (eg, particularly timeframes for giving effect to proposed nutrient bottom lines).

    8. Are the proposed bottom lines fixed and uniform across the country?

    We are open to feedback on any ideas for how to reduce nitrogen and improve ecosystem health, including how we reflect different conditions in different regions.

    Stock exclusion from waterways

    9. I’ve already fenced off my streams. Will these fences need to be moved? When?

    Currently we are proposing that over time fences will need to be moved to at least 5 metres on average from the stream bank. This is because research shows that the wider the setback, the more effective it is in protecting waterways from sediment. Providing setbacks also protects spawning areas for fish and allows riparian planting to shade the waterbody.

    The proposal is that farmers would have until:
    •    2025 to move existing fences that have less than a 2 metre average setback from the riverbank.
    •    2035 to move existing fences that have more than a 2 metre average setback, as long as there is no point where there is less than 1 metre setback from the riverbank.

    We are seeking feedback on the proposed 5 metre setback.

    10. Isn’t this going to cost a lot of money?

    The evidence we have is that farmers have often found the costs of fencing are generally less than they thought, and the benefits are generally greater. Seventy-five per cent of farmers found no change in profit after excluding stock from waterways, 8 per cent saw increased profits and 17 per cent saw lower profits. Farm performance and environmental performance were both higher than expected (52 per cent and 65 per cent compared with their expectations of 20 per cent and 
    41 per cent).

    11. What if fences are at risk of being carried away by flooding, or the land is too steep to fence?

    We recognise there may need to be exemptions in some circumstances and we are seeking feedback on what these exemptions should be.

    12. Does stock exclusion include sheep?

    No. The proposals only apply to cattle, deer and pigs on flat to gently rolling country (low-slope land) and in other areas where the concentration of cattle or deer is similar to dairy stocking rates. We are seeking feedback on how to define low-slope land, and carrying capacity. See the information sheet for livestock farmers, or the Draft Stock Exclusion Section 360 Regulations for more detail.


    13. How do I know if I’m doing the right things to protect waterways on my farm already? What practical steps can I take?

    Good farming principles are a great place to start. There are three general principles:

    1. Identify the physical and biophysical characteristics of the farm system, assess the risk factors to water quality associated with the farm system, and manage appropriately.
    2. Maintain accurate and auditable records of annual farm inputs, outputs and management practices.
    3. Manage farming operations to minimise direct and indirect losses of sediment and nutrients to water, and maintain or enhance soil structure, where agronomically appropriate.

    From a practical point of view, a Farm Environment Plan helps farmers recognise on-farm environmental risks and set out a programme to manage those risks. The plans are now recognised as good business practice, a visible indication of sustainable activity on farm.

    14. What if I already have a farm plan?

    Farmers with existing farm plans are on the right track. It may be that these plans need to be refined or adapted over time to meet new requirements. However, as far as possible we want to build on what farmers and industry groups already have in place.