Protecting New Zealand's rivers

The NZ Conservation Authority (NZCA) released a report late in 2011 entitled Protecting New Zealand’s Rivers. The full report is available on the Department of Conservation website, www.doc.govt.nz and is well worth a read. The NZCA is an appointed representative body whose role is to advise the Minister of Conservation and the Director-General of Conservation.

The report starts by summarising the current state of our rivers, in part:

  • all is not well with New Zealand’s rivers and there is increasing public concern about their state
  • national demand for fresh water in New Zealand has almost doubled in the decade between 2000 and 2010… and demand for energy continues to grow, which means more rivers could be modified to enable hydro-electricity, whether by damming or diverting water out of a river
  • water quality in major rivers has declined since 1989…
  • important values, such as natural character and recreational use of enjoyment of rivers are not being adequately protected in existing National Policy Statements and Regional Plans…
  • …and also recognises that there is no central government agency responsible for protecting rivers – although it acknowledges the part played by Fish and Game, Forest and Bird, Whitewater NZ, and concerned individuals who are fighting many battles.

The NZCA seeks and recommends comprehensive protection for a representative range of rivers. The set of selected rivers should be genuinely protected in perpetuity in their natural state and should include rivers with outstanding ecological, landscape, scenic, recreational, amenity and cultural characteristics and values.

The report concludes with a series of key recommendations. Of particular note to kayakers are:

  • Government commitment is required to protect river systems and river reaches that remain in or are close to, their natural state and or have outstanding wild, scenic and amenity characteristics. Many of our rivers are already highly altered from their natural state, especially in their lowland reaches. A commitment to protect those remaining outstanding or natural rivers would prevent any further loss of these high-value rivers. Once these values are lost it is expensive and almost impossible to return them to their previous state-a poor legacy for future generations.
  • A key objective of national water policy should be the establishment of a representative network of protected rivers, including rivers with outstanding ecological, landscape, scenic, recreational, amenity and cultural characteristics and values. It is equally important that rivers with outstanding characteristics be protected, even if they are no longer in their natural state. Once established, this network should be genuinely protected and not eroded by development proposals.

Other recommendations include:

  • to conduct a stocktake of the extent of river protection in New Zealand is to provide baseline information
  • to allocate a government or quasi-government agency specific responsibility for protecting rivers, including advancing water conservation orders (WCOs)
  • that Regional councils could make greater use of prohibited activity status in regional plans to secure protection (from development and extractive uses) for remaining wild and natural rivers with outstanding values
  • to ensure water management properly reflects the conservation status of conservation land and the rivers within it
  • to ensure that landowner permission (eg, DOC) should be obtained prior to lodging resource consent applications to modify or extract water from rivers in public conservation land – to avoid the current situation where a full consent process can be completed only to have use of conservation land, where required, declined
  • that rivers, including water, within national park boundaries should have national park status
  • that Water Conservation Orders (WCOs) be retained and strengthened to provide protection for rivers and other water bodies with outstanding values; that WCOs be able to provide for enhancement of outstanding characteristics; and once granted that WCOs be harder to amend or revoke; and that Canterbury rivers once again be considered under the standard RMA process after October 2013 (ie, the expiry of the ECan Act). The report notes that the different statutory tests for a new WCO or applications to amend an existing WCO in Canterbury mean significantly less weight is given to the requirement to preserve and protect nationally outstanding water bodies, and greater weight is given to potential uses of water.
  • that a National Environmental Standard on Ecological Flows and Water Levels should be implemented.
  • that the Resource Management Act be amended to allow regional councils to use moratoria to pause consent applications while a river’s in-stream values are assessed, flow regimes developed, and plans amended.

We will watch with considerable interest to see whether the recommendations from the NZCA are adopted by either DOC or the Minister.