Russel Norman

Greens answer the hard questions on freshwater management

by Russel Norman

The Green Party recently received an open letter to politicians and the New Zealand public regarding freshwater management in New Zealand. The letter addressed some of the more difficult questions surrounding freshwater management, which came out of the “Reimagining Freshwater Geographies” workshop recently held at the University of Auckland and attended by 34 environmental and freshwater experts from around the country.

The workshop attendees raised many of the same concerns that the Green Party has surrounding the degradation of our precious waterways. You can read the letter and our response below – Green Party response in green italics.


Open letter to politicians and the public on New Zealand’s freshwater policies

The state and management of New Zealand’s lakes and rivers has been the subject of much recent debate: from Dr Mike Joy challenging our clean green image, to the National Policy Statement for freshwater, to recent political party policy statements. This discussion reflects the importance of freshwater issues to the lives and livelihoods of New Zealanders. Concerns around the future of our country’s freshwater prompted a recent ‘Freshwater Geographies’ workshop, held at the University of Auckland’s School of Environment. The workshop, attended by over thirty environmental researchers and practitioners from across New Zealand, highlighted four key concerns. We ask that the political parties and the public give careful consideration to the following questions in the run‐up to the November election.

1. Visions for freshwater

New Zealand requires clear visions for freshwater to guide management and governance. Currently, economic visions dominate the freshwater discourse – freshwater is viewed as a resource (e.g. irrigation) or a constraint on the development of other resources (e.g. dairying). National’s 2011 policy statement reinforces this image of an economic resource: “Water is our most plentiful natural resource. It gives us a competitive advantage over our trading partners, particularly in our primary and tourism industries.” Labour and the Green Party provide vision statements for freshwater that emphasise the need to protect water quality for drinking, recreational, spiritual and biological reasons. We believe New Zealand needs holistic visions for freshwater that go beyond an emphasis on water quality and water uses. Such visions must encompass the multiple dimensions of freshwater systems and the associated values these systems provide for local and national communities. This will require the integration of visions for freshwater with those for social and economic change.

● To what extent do party policy statements articulate a vision for freshwater systems and communities? What are the motivations that underpin these visions? Are these visions achievable, meaningful and relevant to local and national interests?

The Green Party envisions an approach to our freshwater in which natural biodiversity is maintained and enhanced, the recreational and spiritual values of water are provided for, and communities have adequate supplies of safe, clean water to use. We would like our grandchildren to be able to enjoy healthy waterways, to fulfil recreational, spiritual and health needs. We would support communities to ensure these values are protected through the use of standards, setting a fair price on the use of water to encourage efficient use, and a by providing support to both rural and urban communities to invest in the future health of our freshwater. The details of these policies are outlined here:

In contrast to this, the National Party has an outdated, ‘resource extraction’ approach to freshwater.

While we emphasise the biological, recreational and spiritual values of water, we are acutely aware that there is an economic imperative in protecting and cleaning up our freshwater systems. Our rivers contribute to the perception of New Zealand as a clean, green country and underpin our 100% Pure New Zealand brand. This brand is worth a lot to this country, in particular to our primary production and tourism industries.

2. Investment in freshwater

Freshwater management has been portrayed as representing a trade‐off between economic growth and environmental quality. This has implications for the nature of investments in freshwater. The National Party address this balance by focusing on economic growth while setting aside money to ‘clean up’ freshwater bodies. By investing in irrigation, National intends to increase land productivity while promoting efficient use of freshwater resources. Labour and the Green Party highlight the importance of a high quality environment for maintaining New Zealand’s international reputation and therefore a strong economy. This will be achieved through environmental bottom‐lines, including minimum standards and controls on industry impacts. Both parties intend to implement resource use charges to fund investment in infrastructure and restoration (Labour) and sustainable land management practices (Greens). While these approaches focus on environmental health, they continue to tie investment in freshwater to economic outcomes – e.g. “The health of our waterways is at the heart of how we promote ourselves to the world and earn a premium for our exports” (Labour). They therefore do not challenge the assumption that we should continue to invest in degrading activities, or address the implications for investment in other values associated with freshwater systems. *

● To what extent do these approaches challenge the notion that economic growth must result in environmental degradation, and do they provide opportunities for investment in wider freshwater values?

As outlined above, the Greens reject the notion that we need to achieve a ‘balance’ between our environmental responsibilities and economic objectives. And while we believe there are compelling economic as well as environmental arguments for protecting our water, this does not equate to an acceptance of the notion that we must accept some degradation as the price of economic growth. We know that the environment is the economy, and that our competitive advantage lies in our safeguarding our natural resources.

We are coming up against the ecological limits of our planet. We clearly cannot keep following the same economic model. But economic development can protect and enhance our environment, while creating the jobs we need. We would diversify our primary sector and our economy generally to take advantage of the global demand for clean, green technology. A key solution is our Green Jobs initiative, outlined here: In the primary sector, the Greens would incentivise sustainable farming, the transition to organic production and value added products, and the planting of riparian and high erosion land for carbon storage and biodiversity.

We also challenge the notion that growth in GDP is the best way to measure of the success of our economy. It counts as a positive growth in ‘bads’ like pollution and waste, but does not measure at all the depletion of our resources, or the sustainability of our economy. We will draw on various international models, such as the Genuine Progress Index, to measure our economic success better.

3. Improving the state of freshwater in New Zealand

Environment Minister Nick Smith has responded to recent public debate around New Zealand’s ‘100% Pure’ label by highlighting New Zealand’s high ranking on an international index and suggesting that consistent national monitoring will help to solve this problem. This focus on measurement and the use of minimum flow and water quality standards is reflected in all three main parties’ policy statements, with National also proposing the national ranking of rivers. However, such national scale measures and rules fail to take into account the natural diversity and variability in freshwater systems, and the different problems, potential for improvement and values associated with different freshwater systems throughout the country. Just as water quality is not the dominant issue in all rivers, neither is ‘swimmability’ the priority for all freshwater communities. Standardised measurement and ranking tools treat all rivers the same, ignoring the spatial variability in ecosystems and community values. Moving beyond the current focus on freshwater quality and quantity will allow recognition of the multiple and spatially contingent elements that contribute to ecosystem function. Despite this, the Greens are the only party to highlight “the ecological, hydrological and geomorphological functioning of the ecosystem”, or the need for integrated catchment management to improve the state of freshwater.

● Are you happy with the state and trend of freshwater systems in New Zealand, and standardised approaches to their management? What is your plan beyond measurement?

The Green Party is deeply concerned about the state of our freshwater systems, and sees it as a top priority. Current management has clearly failed to serve freshwater biological systems, and the human communities that use them. Our approach is twofold. Firstly, we do need better monitoring and reporting on the health of our rivers and we support this function being given to the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. We agree that monitoring and reporting needs to be taken into account the diversity of freshwater systems. Secondly, we want to overhaul the way we manage our freshwater systems. A Green Government would set clear standards for water quality, introduce a fair charge for the commercial use of freshwater, and clean up our degraded waterways.

Setting national standards for water quality and minimum flows doesn’t mean that natural variability is not accounted for. For example, minimum flows would vary between rivers, but a national standard means that councils would have consistent rules about how to set them. Clear guidance from central government in the form of a stronger National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, such as the draft version recommended by the Board of Inquiry, would give councils a tool box from which to work from rather than relying upon the ad hoc approach we have seen across the country in the past.

We take a ‘whole of catchment’ approach. We would ensure regional councils and unitary authorities implement integrated catchment management plans which sustain the ecological, hydrological and geomorphological functions of the ecosystem. We would also promote and incentivise the adoption of sustainable land use practices across the catchment, such as the planting of catchment headwaters.

Another way to look at the health of freshwater systems is through the lens of conservation policy. The Greens would ensure the Department of Conservation develops and implements recovery plans for threatened freshwater species and ecosystems, and that all threatened native fish (e.g. giant kokopu and short jawed kokopu) are legally protected. We would increase funding for DoC to 1% of GDP, to ensure they are adequately resourced to carry out their conservation functions.

4. Participation in freshwater governance and decision making

Equitable, locally meaningful governance of catchments and freshwater bodies necessitates the incorporation of local perspectives, knowledge and values. This requires that we move beyond ‘representation’ of community values, as advocated by Labour, which “wants communities to decide which schemes are appropriate via the processes of democratically‐elected regional councils.” Relying on processes of representation does not provide for meaningful community and stakeholder participation in decision making. Community‐based freshwater initiatives provide an opportunity for participatory, integrative freshwater management, and require government support. The collaborative structures advocated by the Greens provide mechanisms for these forms of local governance. We note that participation does not feature in National’s environmental policy statement.

● Are contemporary approaches to public participation in environmental decision‐making in New Zealand inclusive and effective?

The RMA was designed to allow for public participation in environmental decision-making, but this principle has been significantly undermined by the National Government, first through the weakening of public participation provisions in their 2009 RMA amendments, then the sacking of the democratically elected ECAN councillors over water management issues in Canterbury. It is the view of the Green Party that public participation in water management needs strengthening, not weakening.

However, it is clear that the ‘first in, first serve’ approach embodied in the resource consent process hasn’t worked to protect our rivers from pollution and over-allocation. We need a more strategic approach. Strategic tools contained in the RMA – the ability to set standards for water quality through National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards, have been woefully underutilised by successive Governments. As outlined above, the Greens would use these tools to better regulate intensive agriculture.

In catchments that have become over-allocated, or where nutrients are nutrient load limits are already being exceeded, we would encourage councils to adopt a collaborative approach, to get existing and future water users to work together to find acceptable solutions. The agreed upon solutions, such as adoption of industry best management practice, and fencing and planting stream edges, could then become resource consent conditions, or conditions for permitted or controlled activities in regional plans.

The damming of wild rivers for hydroelectricity is one area where environmental decision-making is particularly ineffective. Currently our wild rivers are being picked off one by one by electricity companies, and it is up to local community groups and NGOs to mount expensive legal challenges to save them. The Green Party would protect our remaining wild rivers, by making it easier to obtain water conservation orders, and elevating the status of water conservation orders to that of National Parks.

These four points synthesise the concerns raised by more than thirty New Zealand freshwater experts. Improvement of the state and management of New Zealand’s freshwater requires strong leadership from central government. We therefore invite political parties to respond to the questions in this letter, and ask that the New Zealand public think carefully about each party’s position on freshwater in the upcoming election.


Participants of the Freshwater Geographies workshop*.

* Freshwater Geographies workshop:‐latest‐news/232‐reimagining‐freshwater‐geographies

Authorised by Russel Norman, Level 15, Bowen House, Parliament Buildings, Wellington

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Russel Norman on Tue, November 22nd, 2011   

More posts by | more about Russel Norman