In the “Protecting New Zealand's Rivers

Rivers have many values: in-stream (includes ecological and intrinsic values); landscape, scenic and natural characteristics; amenity, and recreation (such as swimming, angling, rafting and kayaking). Rivers are a source of mahinga kai (food) and their mauri (life force) is fundamental to Māori culture. Abstractive uses include community and stock water supply, and irrigation. Rivers are also used to generate electricity, for which they are dammed or have portions of their flow diverted, and for disposal of waste water.

New Zealand has more than 70 major river systems (30 in the North Island and 40 in the South Island) and numerous other streams and watercourses. Half of New Zealand’s 425,000 kilometres of rivers and streams are small headwater streams6. New Zealand rivers have some unusual characteristics: they are short and steep, and many carry large sediment loads. New Zealand rivers are highly variable in flow, and have very large floods in proportion to their catchment area owing to the country’s latitude, climate and mountainous relief. New Zealand also has a large proportion of the international stock of braided rivers; these contain specially adapted biota.

The protection of our backcountry (originally for water and soil protection rather than for public use or biodiversity) means that high water quality is largely maintained there. This provides public benefit by supplying clean water and by diluting the much poorer water quality resulting from intensive land use on farms and in cities further downstream.

Of New Zealand’s total length of rivers and streams, 51 per cent lie in catchments with predominantly natural land cover, such as native bush or alpine rock and tussock. The remaining 49 per cent of river length is in catchments that have been modified by agriculture (43 per cent), plantation forestry (5 per cent) or urban settlement (1 per cent).7

Each river is an ecological corridor from its source in mountains or hill country to the sea, transcending legal land status, but affected in different parts by the activities permitted on or alongside the river.

The quality and quantity of water delivered to the coast by a river system directly influences coastal water quality and sedimentation processes.

Management of rivers as drainage systems is pervasive. Habitat destruction has resulted, and led to wholesale change in lowland rivers. This practice remains ongoing today.

Few sizable freshwater catchments exist entirely within public conservation land, aside from some rivers on the South Island’s west coast.

Fresh water is administered by regional councils under the RMA. The water in most rivers running through public conservation land is not protected by conservation legislation, even though the public thinks it is.

While some upland river and streambed areas are included within protected areas, this is seldom the case in lowland areas, partly due to the paucity of protected areas there.

The beds of smaller (non-navigable) rivers are owned by the adjacent land owners to the centre line. The legal status of the beds of large rivers is complex. For rivers that meet the test of “navigable”, riverbeds are, for the most part, classified as unoccupied Crown land nominally administered by Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) but for flood and sediment management purposes, are managed by regional councils. Rivers are not managed for conservation purposes even where they adjoin public conservation land.

Management of rivers is shared amongst several agencies. Protection requires a level of co-ordination between them, but this is apparently neither sought nor achieved.

The Crown exercises its overall control of fresh water8 largely through the RMA, which delegates river management primarily to regional councils.9  The RMA is the main legislation for managing fresh water in New Zealand. Regional councils’ responsibilities for controlling the taking, use, damming, diversion and pollution of fresh water (RMA section 30 (1) (e) and (f)) include the power to set and decide on flow regimes and to manage and allocate water and activities in riverbeds. Councils exercise these powers through preparing regional policy statements (required) and regional plans (optional), and by their decisions on resource consent applications. Activities on the surface of waters can be regulated through district rules by territorial authorities.

National direction can be provided through national policy statements and national environmental standards.10  The standards can relate to water level, flow, quality or contaminants (RMA section 43).

No government agency has an explicit responsibility to preserve and protect rivers as an entity.

Regional councils and territorial authorities, Department of Conservation (DOC), and LINZ have various responsibilities for managing the beds of rivers, commercial activities on the surface of rivers, and surrounding land areas. LINZ administers large areas of riverbed, and these are not managed for conservation. DOC manages most indigenous freshwater species including whitebait, as well as the Taupo sports fishery. The Ministry of Fisheries (MFish) manages indigenous species for which there is commercial take (e.g. eels). Fish and Game Councils manage sports fish (other than Taupo fishery) and game birds. The Environment Minister and Ministry for the Environment (MfE) may establish national policy and national environmental standards affecting rivers, which lower levels of government have to variously give effect to, not be inconsistent with, or have regard to. See Appendix 1 for a summary of agencies and their freshwater management responsibilities.

In addition to its responsibility for indigenous species, DOC actively manages freshwater sites (rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands) within public conservation land and advocates protection for significant freshwater ecosystems outside public conservation land. These are part of DOC’s broad functions under section 6 of the Conservation Act 1987, in particular section 6(a), (b) and (d). DOC also has a specific function, “to preserve as far as is practicable all indigenous freshwater fisheries and protect recreational freshwater fisheries and freshwater fish habitats” (section 6(ab)). The Conservation General Policy 2005 identifies DOC’s priorities when discharging these functions.

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6 (accessed 26 January 2011).

7 (accessed 26 January 2011).

8 The Water and Soil Conservation Act 1967 (WSCA) vested the sole right to use or pollute natural water in the Crown.

9 With limited exceptions, no one can take, use, dam or divert water or take heat or energy from water unless this is expressly allowed by a resource consent or a regional rule (section 14 RMA). Exceptions include taking for reasonable domestic needs, for stock water, fire fighting and takes of geothermal water for use in accordance with tikanga Māori for communal benefit of tangata whenua, uses lawfully established before the regional rule came into effect and other established uses permitted by section 20A RMA. Similarly no one may discharge any contaminant into water, or onto land in circumstances where it may enter water, without authorisation by a plan rule or a specific resource consent.

Mulcahy K, Peart R and Garvan N (2010).

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