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Working to improve water quality and ecosystem health

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Environment Aotearoa report reinforces pressures on our freshwater

Today the Environment Aotearoa 2019 report was released by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ.

This report highlights the most pressing environmental issues Aotearoa is facing – across our ecosystems and biodiversity, our land, our freshwater and marine resources, and our climate.

Read the Summary Report.

This report reinforces what we learned from the Our Freshwater domain report in 2017 – and what we hear every day from New Zealanders all over the country - ​ Our waterways are under pressure.

Key facts from the report include:

  • Waterways in farming areas are polluted by excess nutrients, pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms) and sediment. Depending on the pollutant, the median concentration in rivers in farmed areas is between 2 and 15 times higher than in natural conditions. 
  • Based on models, about 70 per cent of the river length in farmed areas has nitrogen levels that may affect the growth of some aquatic species, and about 80 per cent of the river length is not suitable for activities such as swimming due to the risk of infection by pathogens. Both degrade cultural well-being. For example, when waterways are polluted, it can also affect the mana associated with an iwi or hapū. 
  • Waterways in urban areas are polluted by excess nutrients, pathogens and sediment, which have median levels that are typically even higher than in farming areas.   Based on models, over 90 per cent of the river length in urban areas has nitrogen levels that may affect the growth of some aquatic species, and over 90 per cent of the river length is not suitable for activities such as swimming due to risk of infection by pathogens.
  • New Zealanders are heavy users of fresh water. In 2014 we had the second highest volume of water take per person of OECD countries: 2,162 cubic metres compared with the OECD average of 815 cubic metres. Aside from hydroelectricity, most of the allocated water use was for irrigation (51 per cent). Household consumption made up 14 per cent, and industrial use made up 13 per cent. We lack data on actual (as opposed to consented) water use.
  • The area of irrigated agricultural land almost doubled between 2002 and 2017 from 384,000 hectares to 747,000 hectares. In 2017, 64 per cent of New Zealand’s irrigated agricultural land was in Canterbury.

Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson says “this report clearly shows that we are facing some pretty challenging environmental issues across the whole country – in our towns and cities, rivers and oceans. The choices we make from here will determine the kind of environment we create for our tamariki and mokopuna. It is up to us.  We need every one of us thinking about the environmental impact of every choice that we make every day, and doing what is within our power to make change – whether that is in a boardroom, in a Minister’s office, on a farm, or at home.”

Vicky Robertson says she is optimistic that together New Zealanders can tackle these issues.
“We have seen a huge increase in momentum. There are hundreds of community groups up and down the country working to restore their local areas.  The primary sector is stepping up – farming leaders are committed to improving the sector’s environmental performance and there are many great examples of on-farm changes. All sorts of businesses are recognising that their long term success depends on a strong and healthy environment.  At a regional and local level, councils are investing millions in upgrading infrastructure, reducing sediment runoff and water pollution, and supporting community efforts.”

What we’re doing about our freshwater

The pressures on our freshwater raised in this report make up the agenda for our Essential Freshwater work programme that is currently underway. 

We are making rapid progress on developing policies that are intended to set us on the path to healthier freshwater and a fair and efficient freshwater management system. The intention is to put proposals forward for public discussion, likely in July.  

We are grateful for the ongoing hard work and thoughtful input of the members of Te Kāhui Wai Māori, the Freshwater Leaders Group, the Science and Technical Advisory Group and the Regional Sector  Water group.  These groups represent a broad spectrum of New Zealanders.  Every member of every group has shown their determination to take this opportunity to limit freshwater pollution and protect this precious taonga.

Te Kāhui is focused on the importance of Te Mana o te Wai as an overarching framework for freshwater care that underpins policy, practice and decision-making. 

The Freshwater Leaders Group has been providing input on all aspects of the policy programme, with a focus on how the elements interact to achieve the goal of healthier freshwater.

The Science and Technical Advisory Group members have advised the Ministry on a wide range of science topics, including managing all aspects of ecosystem health.

The chair of the Regional Sector Water group, Waikato Regional Council Chief Executive Vaughan Payne says improving freshwater is a high priority to the regional sector (regional and unitary councils across NZ).

“It is great to have the opportunity to share the sector’s extensive experience and support the Essential Freshwater programme.  Over the last year, the sector has provided advice on what’s already working and what more can be done to ‘make the boat go faster’ to improve the management of NZ’s precious freshwater resources”.

Next steps

Alongside our work on freshwater, the Ministry for the Environment is also working with others on comprehensive reforms that address the full range of issues highlighted in the Environment Aotearoa 2019 report.

Read more about our work here.

Vicky Robertson says, "as we consult on a range of topics this year, we want to have a conversation with New Zealanders about the impact and timeframe for these reforms.  That will be an opportunity to weigh up what we value and the future we want."

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