In November 2013, the Minister for the Environment released a discussion document on the proposed amendments to the existing National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2011 ("NPS").  The discussion document follows the announcement of the Government's proposals for reform of our freshwater management system in March this year.

The proposed changes aim to make the NPS (the purpose of which is to guide and direct the development of freshwater management provisions in regional plans) more effective.   Regional Plans are required to "give effect to" the NPS within certain timeframes.

It is clear that the proposed amendments are driven in part by the Land and Water Forum reports released over previous years.  This is evident from the inclusion of a collaborative plan amendment process (an alternative process to the standard Schedule 1 process proposed by the Land and Water Forum).  Such a collaborative process is understood to be part of the next wave of wider reform to the Resource Management Act, however the timing and feasibility of such amendments remains uncertain.   

In terms of substantive (as opposed to procedural) changes the document proposes to ensure that regional councils account for all water takes and sources of contaminants to inform decisions on setting of freshwater objectives and limits.  The most significant change is the introduction of a National Objectives Framework ("NOF") to support and guide the setting of objectives in regional plans. The NOF sets two compulsory values with associated environmental bottom lines that must be met and a set of additional national values. 

The two compulsory values are ecosystem health and human health for secondary contact.  The proposed bottom lines relate to chlorophyll, total nitrogen, total phosphorous, nitrate toxicity, ammonia toxicity, dissolved oxygen, periphyton, E. Coli, and cyanobacteria (planktonic).

The proposed NOF is not yet complete and it is expected to be populated in later years as the science relating to freshwater management progresses, with more bottom lines and values being identified through the NPS.

The proposal also includes the introduction of the term 'Te Mana o te Wai', in an attempt to more clearly articulate tangata whenua values for fresh water within the NPS.    

The discussion document poses a series of questions that range from whether the current problems with implementing the NPS have been correctly identified through to whether there should be numeric bottom lines.  The approach itself proposes interesting legal questions, which include whether an NPS is the correct method for establishing bottom lines or whether such matters are more appropriately addressed through a National Environmental Standard.

Submissions on the discussion document are due with the Ministry for the Environment by 5pm on Tuesday 4 February 2014