What is the NPS?
The NPS provides minimum requirements for the management of freshwater by regional councils in New Zealand so that the overall water quality in a region is maintained or improved. The NPS establishes a National Objectives Framework (NOF). This contains a set of optional values (things that the community want water in their region to be used for, such as swimming, irrigation and economic or commercial development), as well as two mandatory ‘national values’ (ecosystem health and human health for recreation). Regional councils must apply numerical limits for the mandatory national values in respect of the water’s biology and chemistry (attributes) in its management of freshwater bodies (known as freshwater management units).
The NPS requires regional councils to identify national values for each of the freshwater management units relevant to its region and assign associated attribute states graded from A (water quality suitable for swimming) to D (water quality at an unacceptable level) to these. Regional councils must implement the NPS by 31 December 2025. However, councils can apply for a five year extension if they consider implementation by 2025 to be impracticable.
- sets a number of bottom lines for key attributes for the mandatory values: ecosystem health and human health for recreation in lakes and rivers. These include limits for nitrogen, phosphorus and phytoplankton (trophic state) in lakes, periphyton (slime), nitrate and ammonia toxicity in rivers, E.coli in rivers and lakes
- now includes a specific statement which recognises the national significance and Te Mana o te Wai (the mana of the water) as well as the importance of tangata whenua and community values associated with fresh water in the NPS’s overriding statement
- requires councils to develop a monitoring plan and monitor freshwater objective results, as well as establishing and maintaining a freshwater quality and quantity accounting system by 1 August 2016.
- The NPS has been criticised for not setting mandatory phosphorus limits in rivers and streams, and for setting nitrogen limits on the basis of toxicity (instead of requiring healthy fresh water ecosystems). Focusing on only nitrogen is inconsistent with the Board of Inquiry’s (BOI) Ruataniwha Scheme decision, which adopted a dual nutrient management model for phosphorus and nitrogen in the Tukituki catchment.
- It has also been criticised for not targeting water quality that is suitable for swimming. Instead, the NPS sets a mandatory bottom line at a level suitable for wading and boating.
- Furthermore, there is uncertainty about how the NPS will be implemented and guidance will be required on a national level to ensure consistency between the regions, particularly in respect of the scope of ‘Freshwater Management Units’, which are not prescribed by the NPS.
- The setting of freshwater objectives below the bottom line may occur on a transitional basis. The bases and length of this transitional period are yet to be determined.
- Policy CA3 provides for setting a freshwater objective that is below a national bottom line in two exceptional circumstances:
- the existing freshwater quality is caused by naturally occurring processes (such as a native bird colony in a river bed that may cause high E.coli levels downstream)
- any of the existing infrastructure listed in Appendix 3 (currently empty) contributes to the existing freshwater quality (such as hydro-electric power stations on particular rivers which means water quality or quantity is currently below the bottom line).
These exemptions (in Appendix 3) are to be consulted on later in the year and will be decided by the government, but for the moment remain uncertain.
What’s at stake?
The NPS’s overall approach is that freshwater waterways cannot deteriorate any further. At a minimum this will maintain the status quo, and except for in exceptional circumstances, mean that the target for all waterways will be at or above the national bottom lines. Whether or not this will be enough to mitigate the damage to and protect New Zealand’s waterways remains to be seen. The NPS will undergo an independent review in 2016.
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