View all publications

2 Why Identify Water Bodies of National Importance?

The overall objective of the Water Bodies of National Importance project is to ensure appropriate recognition and protection of nationally important values in the management of New Zealand's water bodies. Water bodies include lakes, rivers, groundwater aquifers and wetlands. As an initial step, methods were trialled to create separate lists of potential water bodies of national importance for irrigation, energy generation, tourism, recreation, industrial and domestic use, and natural heritage. In addition, a method has been developed to enable identification of potential water bodies of national importance for cultural and historic heritage.

Many countries identify and protect water bodies that are important for natural heritage, scientific or scenic values (for example, Australia, Canada and the United States of America have Heritage River programmes). However, there is little evidence to suggest that the identification of water bodies of national importance within a sustainable development framework is widespread.

In the past, water bodies of national importance for natural, social or cultural heritage values have been protected on a case-by-case basis by site-specific legislation and a range of other tools. Examples of the tools include:

  • special lake protection statutes such as the Lake Wanaka Preservation Act 1973 and the Lake Waikaremoana Act 1971
  • regulations in the form of (National) Water Conservation Orders
  • the establishment of statutory Guardians of Lake Manapouri, Monowai and Te Anau. [The Guardians provide independent advice to Minsters and local authorities on lake levels and river flows.]

Non-legislative methods have included the establishment of different types of Reserves or National Parks such as Natural Reserves (eg, Lake Christabel), Faunistic Reserve (Lake Chalice), Scientific Reserve (Waikanae River Mouth and Estuary) and National Park (Lake Te Anau).

Where a water body is of both national importance and importance to tangata whenua, special co-management agreements and legislation have sometimes been established such as for Lake Taupo in 1926 and 1990, Lake Ellesmere/Waihora in the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1994, and for Lake Horowhenua (various reserves and eel protection status).

Recent examples of the government's approach to managing nationally important water bodies include contributing to addressing the water quality problems of Lake Omapere, Lake Taupo and Lakes Rotorua and Rotoiti. The principles of the Sustainable Development Programme of Action require a more strategic approach for securing nationally important values associated with water bodies. This initial project starts to provide specific criteria and greater clarity about which water bodies may be of national importance and why.

The initial work in developing methods, criteria and lists of potential water bodies of national importance will contribute to the overall work on the national interest in water. The Water Bodies of National Importance project should not be considered in isolation. Under the Water Programme of Action there is ongoing work on water quality, and water allocation and use. However, potential uses of the methods and lists are outlined below.

Potential use For example

Assist local/regional government processes

Provide information to assist in the development of local/regional policies and plans.

Provide a basis for developing a whole of government view on the nationally important values of individual water bodies

Provide a framework for assisting the development of local/regional/central government partnerships to enable proactive management.

Competition between uses may be able to be resolved on a regional or catchment scale, rather than at individual locations.

Testing methods and criteria for each of the values.

Identifying gaps in available data and evaluate costs/benefits of filling those gaps.

Central government contributes to multi-agency investigations on water bodies or catchments with multiple values.

Development of whole of government plans of action for particular water bodies (eg, instead of independent Regional Plans, and National Park or Reserve Plans).

Once developed, methods and lists provide the basis for individual departments to prioritise advocacy and/or operational investment for particular water bodies.

The natural heritage list shows where the Department of Conservation could focus future work on the protection of biological diversity, required under the Biodiversity Strategy.

Enhanced use of existing tools to secure both individual and multiple values of national importance.

National Policy Statements with differentiated policy direction for water bodies of national importance.

National Environmental Standards with differentiated standards/processes for water bodies of national importance

The call-in provisions of the Resource Management Act could be used for water bodies of national importance

The existing water conservation order provisions of the Resource Management Act could be used to protect outstanding instream values such as tourism, natural heritage, and recreation.

Formal designation as Ramsar sites of those water bodies of national importance that meet international importance criteria under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Beds of water bodies of national importance could be legally protected by transferring them to National Park or Reserve status from unallocated Land of the Crown.

Basis for investigation and development of new tools to secure both individual and multiple values of national importance.

Pilot projects could be used to test new tools developed under the allocation and quality projects.

Central government could adopt an approval role on regional plans for freshwater. [Consistent with current central government role in approving Regional Coastal Plans.]

A schedule could be attached to the Resource Management Act, specifying individual water bodies and the values that are nationally important.

Special legislation could be developed to impose standards or procedures to help manage individual catchments (eg, Lake Wanaka Preservation Act).

The Water Conservation Order provisions of the Resource Management Act could be modified or replaced to enable abstractive values to be secured outside of the amenity and intrinsic values.

Central government funding.

The lists of nationally important water bodies could be used to prioritise existing funding (eg, biodiversity funds or sustainable management funds).

Future funding could be investigated for initiatives associated with particular water bodies.

Requiring monitoring, reporting and evaluation.

Monitoring and reporting could be required at the national level. [Triennial reporting is currently required for all Ramsar sites to the Convention Secretaria.] A monitoring programme could measure aspects of tourism, historic heritage, industrial uses, population growth, recreational use, energy generation and land use practices.

Potential uses of the water bodies of national importance work are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is possible that many of the above potential uses may be appropriate.

The national interest in freshwater and water bodies generally arises from two sources. Firstly, the right to use water is vested through law in the Crown, which delegates management responsibility to regional councils through the Resource Management Act 1991. Despite the devolution of most decision-making powers, the accountability under international conventions still lies with the Crown. The inability of the Crown to deliver on international convention expectations for water bodies was highlighted by the recent report of the Auditor-General on the Ramsar Convention.

Secondly, an important aspect of Government's role is to safeguard the values that are of national importance.

While water management in New Zealand is largely the responsibility of regional councils, central government involvement may be considered when issues of national interest are at stake. Particularly when the respective local authority has weak incentives to take these values of the broader community, into account. This is likely to occur when benefits of local-level activity (eg, investment) are not captured solely by the region, but accrue to the nation as a whole.

National interest is not a static concept and may be defined in specific circumstances through political and legal processes. In general terms, Central Government may be interested when the effects of regionally-based decision-making impact significantly on the wider national community. These may occur in such circumstances where there is:

  • a disproportionate cost (economic, social, cultural or environmental or a combination) to the nation through a proposal not proceeding
  • a significant benefit (economic, social, cultural or environmental or a combination) to the nation through a proposal proceeding
  • a need to ensure that Crown vested resources are allocated in a way that provides for the full range of existing and future needs of the nation
  • a need to ensure efficient integration of infrastructure that crosses local government boundaries
  • the water body largely contained within a National Park or other Crown vested park or reserve.

Agreement on the national interest may involve trade-offs between different national interest outcomes. [Methods are yet to be developed to resolve conflicting values.] Specific proposals may affect matters of national interest depending upon their location, scale, the risks involved if they do not go ahead and the values of the environment in which they are proposed.

2.1 What are we aiming for?

Local government is largely responsible for managing freshwater. Reconciling the diverse interests is difficult. Differences can arise at the regional level, and between local and national interests. An important aspect of Government's role is to safeguard the values that are of national importance. The proposed outcome for this project is that nationally important natural, social, economic or cultural values of water bodies are protected or secured. [This suggested outcome differs from that specified in the Sustainable Development Programme of Action. Securing economic values has subsequently been proposed as an outcome, to ensure the project is consistent with a sustainable development approach. The outcome agreed in the Sustainable Development Programme of Action is that "water bodies with nationally significant natural, social or cultural heritage values are protected".]

We will have succeeded if:

  • proactive action secures nationally important values
  • the best available information supports decisions
  • mechanisms across landholdings, catchment, district, regional and national levels are integrated
  • decisions are made at the lowest practical level of governance
  • high compliance costs are avoided
  • uncertainty and risk are minimised
  • decisions are timely.

2.2 What is the problem?

Since the Resource Management Act (RMA) was passed in 1991 New Zealand has generally not adopted a proactive approach to determining the national interest in freshwater. There is no general statement of the national interest in freshwater. The approach for individual water bodies has been largely reactive, and involves responding to projects and regional plans as they arise rather than providing a national context. This has resulted in a lack of certainty for local government and stakeholders, and ad hoc decision-making.

Potentially conflicting interests in water at national level, and between national and regional level are difficult to address proactively. Potential synergies are not necessarily identified without information about the relative significance of those interests and their dependencies. Existing frameworks and processes for resolving competing national interests and optimising complementary outcomes are poorly developed and inadequately used.

The national instruments currently available in legislation (eg, national policy statements, national environmental standards) have been under-utilised.