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. 

The consultation closed on 31 October 2019. 

Next steps

An independent advisory panel will provide Ministers with a report on the consultation submissions. This will include recommendations. Ministers will consider the report before deciding whether or not to proceed with the policy proposals or make changes.

The following will be linked to from this webpage when available.

  • Independent Advisory Panel full report and recommendations
  • summary of submissions and individual submissions
  • additional impact analysis, and an evaluation of national direction under section 32 of the Resource Management Act 1991.

A list of the independent advisory panel members is at the end of this page.

Information sessions

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

Regional hui for iwi/Māori 

Primary sector timetable 

Public meeting timetable - see the meetings we held. 

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?

The proposed requirements of the stock exclusion regulation would require fences to be moved to at least 5 metres on average from the stream bank over time. The setback is proposed 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 waterway.
  • 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 waterway.

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). See Section 7.3 Management stock exclusion from waterways, in the 2017 Landcare Research Survey of Rural Decision Makers. 

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.

15. Does this all have to be done in five years?

We are not expecting everything to be achieved in the next five years. There are some immediate steps to stop things getting worse that would start to be implemented from mid-2020.  However achieving healthy waterways, including measures such as the proposed new bottom line for nutrients, is expected to take decades. Regional councils would have to work with their communities to decide their targets and the timeframes for achieving them.

Here is a timeline for the current proposals.

From mid-2020 
  • Tighter restrictions on further intensification like new irrigation or conversion to dairying until regional councils have a freshwater management plan in place (due by 2025).
  • Intensive winter grazing of forage crops and sacrifice paddocks would have to  be managed to minimum standards; if not, a resource consent would be needed for the 2021 season, including if you want to plant large areas or crop steeper land.
  • Stock holding areas and feedlots would need a consent if animals are held there for more than 30 days a year or 10 days in a row, you would need to manage effluent and be 50m from a waterway.
  • Tight restrictions on draining or clearing a wetland, and on piping or infilling streams would come into effect.
By July 2021
  • Dairy cattle and pigs would need to be excluded from lakes, wetlands (identified in a regional or district plan) and rivers (more than one metre wide) on all land regardless of slope.
  • Beef cattle, dairy support and deer would need to be excluded from wetlands (identified in a regional or district plan) on all land regardless of slope.
  • All cattle and deer would need to be excluded from lakes and rivers (more than one metre wide) if they are break feeding or feeding on fodder crops, or irrigated pasture
  • Dairy support would need to be excluded from lakes and rivers (more than one metre wide) on low-slope land.
By mid-2022
  • Vegetable growers would need a freshwater module of a farm plan, signed off by a suitably qualified and experienced farm environment planner and audited.
  • Farmers with highly erodible land in the Kaipara Catchment would also need a freshwater module of a farm plan.
  • Farmers in specified high nitrogen catchments may need a freshwater module of a farm plan (option 3) or some may need a consent (option 1) showing how nitrogen discharges will be reduced, depending on final decisions after consultation. 
  • Larger water takes (20 litres per second or more) would need telemetry installed.  A telemetry requirement would roll out to extend to all takes over 5 litres per second over time.
By July 2023
  • All stock (beef cattle, dairy cattle, dairy support, deer and pigs) would need to be excluded from all wetlands, regardless of slope.
  • Beef cattle and deer would need to be excluded from lakes and rivers (more than one metre wide) on low-slope land.
  • Beef cattle, dairy support and deer would need to be excluded from lakes and rivers (more than one metre wide) on non-low-slope land that has a high potential carrying capacity.
By 2025
  • Existing stock exclusion fences that are less than two metres on average from the waterway (or less than one metre from the waterway at any point) would need to be moved back to at least five metres on average (and no less than one metre at any point).
  • Regional councils would need to have plans in place to improve freshwater ecosystem health, including setting objectives, targets and timeframes. These targets and timelines will be decided through the regional planning process.  The timelines may be long-term, in which case the council must set interim targets at intervals of ten years or less.
By end of 2025 All farmers and growers would need a freshwater module of a farm plan, signed off by a suitably qualified and experienced farm environment planner, except for:
  • Pastoral farms less than 20 hectares
  • Arable farms less than 20 hectares
  • Horticultural farms less than 5 hectares.
The farm plan would need to be audited after 2 years.

By 2026

All farmers and growers would need to report on water usage using telemetry, if using more than 5 litres per second.
From 2026 All regional councils will need to be implementing their regional plans.  The impact will depend on the region’s targets for water quality, and the timelines for achieving them, with the timelines expected to extend over decades.    
By 2035 Existing stock exclusion fences that are more than two metres on average from the waterway but less than five metres on average, would have to be moved back to provide at least a five metre setback on average across the farm, with no less than one metre at any point (or an exemption granted).

16. What is the plan for Action Plans? Where is the guidance, consistency and accountability for success?

Regional councils would be required to prepare Action Plans for specific attributes or indicators of freshwater health under the draft NPS-FM.  These are different to the overall freshwater plan the council will be required to have by 2025.

Action Plans would be required for the attributes listed in Appendix 2B of the draft Freshwater NPS:  fish (rivers-wadeable), macroinvertebrates, E. coli, lake submerged plants (macrophytes), deposited fine sediment, dissolved oxygen and ecosystem metabolism.

Action Plans would be required where the attribute demands a tailored response. For example, for at swimming sites, councils would be required to set a target attribute state, and then draft an Action Plan that identifies the sources of the E. coli contamination, and methods to address those sources depending on local circumstances. These methods could include addressing sewage overflows, and stock management around farm drains for example.

We anticipate providing guidance to regional councils on action planning.

Regional councils would have to publish their Action Plan and report annually on progress, which would enable the community to hold them to account.

17. Why is forestry exempt from wetland protection?

Forestry is not exempt from wetland protection.

The National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry currently regulates the way some plantation forestry activities may be carried out. This will be reviewed after decisions are made on proposals in the Freshwater package to ensure consistency, for example, in size of wetlands definitions.

18. Wetland monitoring only applies to new consents, what about all the other wetlands?

Standard wetland monitoring obligations would be inserted into new consents under Cl 5(1) of the proposed National Environmental Standards for Freshwater. This is intended to ensure that new consents would contain appropriate monitoring conditions.

This should be read alongside Cl 3.15(9) of the draft National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, which would also require regional councils to monitor the condition of all wetlands (including those not subject to the above consent conditions) and have methods to respond when degradation is detected.

19. Wetland protection is proposed for areas bigger than 500sqm. What about smaller wetlands?

All wetlands would be protected under Cl 4 to 17 of the proposed National Environmental Standards for Freshwater, and Cl 3.15 of the proposed National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, regardless of size. The size of the wetland is only relevant for mapping requirements under 3.15(5)(a).

20. Given the serious impacts of winter grazing, why are proposals allowing such big areas with small setbacks?

Intensive winter grazing can have serious impact on the health of our waterways and on animal welfare. We are consulting on a range of options for setback size and area threshold. Option 1 of the package proposes setbacks of either 5 metres or 20 metres. A 5 meter setback is supported by data that shows this distance is an effective buffer between stock and water bodies. 

We welcome your feedback on the ideal setbacks for intensive winter grazing.

21. What about contamination from birds?

In deciding what level of water quality to aim for and how to get there, regional councils must factor in all possible sources of contamination. This may include large bird populations that impact on recreational swimming areas.   

22. Is there any support for the proposals to be implemented?

The Government acknowledges this is an important package of changes and has provided funding in this year’s Budget to support land owners, councils and iwi/Maori to implement these changes. This includes things like developing good practice guidance for farmers; developing IT systems, tools and templates to support a farm planning regime; and learning off existing industry models. We are also seeking feedback through the discussion document on how the costs for introducing farm plans could best be met.

23. What about existing council plans and the transition to new requirements?

Different regions are at different points in their implementation of the existing Freshwater NPS. The proposals that are out for consultation build on these existing requirements.

If implemented, they would require a step-up in some places to achieve freshwater quality targets. Councils would need to assess the changes and upgrade their plans where necessary by 2025. Work already done on plans, including plan changes currently being considered, is relevant and would be built on.

The Minister for the Environment has appointed an independent advisory panel to prepare a report and recommendations on the public submissions from this consultation. The Minister will consider the panel’s findings before deciding whether to proceed or not with the proposed national direction or make changes. 

The panel members are below.

Judge David Sheppard (Chair)

Judge David Sheppard is a retired principal Environment Court judge. He has extensive experience as a chairperson including for the Board of Inquiry into the Proposed National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management in 2008. He also has extensive experience in environmental law, national direction and freshwater management, particularly in Canterbury.

Maree Baker-Galloway

Ms Baker-Galloway is a partner at Anderson Lloyd based in Queenstown specialising in environmental management and planning under the Resource Management Act 1991. She has expertise in freshwater management, marine issues, tourism development, urban development and natural resource use. She was on the national executive for the Resource Management Law Association from 2007 to 2017 and was its president from 2015 to 2017.

Tracy Brown

Tracy Brown has experience as an agricultural economist and has been dairy farming for 25 years. She has held a range of community, regional and national roles leading environmental change in the dairy sector including Chair of the Dairy Environment Leaders Forum.

Antoine Coffin

Antoine Coffin is the Director of Te Onewa Consultants. He is a Māori Commissioner specialising in freshwater, wastewater, heritage and planning. He has experience on numerous community advisory boards and in iwi governance and decision-making. Mr Coffin has knowledge of tikanga Māori and was recently the Mātauranga Māori Technical Leader for Healthy Rivers Waiora. In this role he reported on factors affecting food gathering, swimming and special characteristics of the Waikato and Waipa rivers from a Māori perspective.

Andrew Fenemor

Andrew Fenemor is a senior scientist in hydrology and water management at Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research in Nelson. Mr Fenemor has extensive experience in catchment management, hydrology, water policy and RMA decision-making. He was previously environment manager at Tasman District Council.  He is a former president of the NZ Hydrological Society and recipient of its award for outstanding achievement in hydrology. Andrew brings wide technical expertise in land and water management as an RMA Hearing Commissioner, most recently in water planning for the Bay of Plenty and in Canterbury.