The brand new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020 (NPSFM20) came into force on 3 September 2020, replacing the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2014 (NPSFM14). The new statement forms part of the Government’s overhaul of the freshwater planning framework and introduces a slew of changes to the way regional councils are required to manage freshwater resources in the future.

The NPSFM20 has one fundamental concept – Te Mana o te Wai. Freshwater must be managed in a way that gives effect to this concept and it underpins all of the policies and provisions included in the NPSFM20. Te Mana o te Wai encompasses the authority and obligations of tangata whenua to make decisions to protect, enhance, respect, care for and sustain freshwater and its use and is focused on governance and stewardship of freshwater.

Key policies of NPSFM20 include that:

  • tangata whenua should be actively involved in freshwater management including in decision making processes;
  • freshwater is managed in an integrated way that considers the effects of use and development on a whole of catchment basis;
  • freshwater is managed as part of New Zealand’s integrated response to climate change;
  • the significant values of outstanding water bodies are protected;
  • the habitat of indigenous freshwater species, trout and salmon are protected;
  • freshwater is allocated and used efficiently, all existing over-allocation is phased out, and future over-allocation is avoided;
  • the national target for water quality improvement, which relates to increasing the proportion of freshwater bodies suitable for primary contact, is achieved;
  • the condition of water bodies and freshwater ecosystems is systematically monitored over time, and action is taken where freshwater is degraded, and to reverse deteriorating trends.

The National Objectives Framework (NOF) from the NPSFM14 will be continued but has been strengthened by the NPSFM20. This requires every body of freshwater in New Zealand to be grouped into a Freshwater Management Unit (FMU) by regional councils. The relevant regional council will then be required to develop desired environmental outcomes for each FMU and a number of targets to assess whether outcomes are achieved.  Additionally, regional councils are required to include rules in their regional plans that set environmental flows and take limits for each FMU.

Regional councils are required by the NPSFM20 to give effect to it as soon as reasonably practicable. As discussed in our previous article on the Resource Management Amendment Act 2020, regional councils will be required to use the new freshwater planning process to publicly notify new regional plan provisions by 31 December 2024 to implement the changes required by the NPSFM20. Final decisions on the provisions will then be required two years after this date by 31 December 2026.

The timeframe for implementing these changes is short given that under the NPSFM17, regional councils had until 2030 to carry out all necessary monitoring and plan changes to bring their FMU frameworks in to effect. Significant and complex monitoring, modelling and analysis of all FMUs will be required before the freshwater planning process can be carried out. There is no doubt that all regional councils have a significant body of work ahead.

With National party leader Judith Collins indicating that new freshwater directions including the NPSFM20 could be ‘gone by lunchtime’ under a National government, it seems that we will have to wait and see whether - post-election - the NPSFM20 will survive long enough to be implemented by 2026.