In times of drought, the regional council could restrict the right to take water from aquifers and rivers across the Bay of Plenty region.
At an extraordinary council meeting held on Monday, Bay of Plenty Regional Council elected members approved a process for issuing water shortage directions.
Under the Resource Management Act the regional council can issue a water directive to water users that stops or restricts them from taking water - regardless of whether they have a resource consent to do so.
The council can also stagger the timing of the water takes.
The newly approved process puts the responsibility for issuing the directions in the hands of council chief executive Fiona McTavish.
Regulatory services general manager Sarah Omundsen said the council had always monitored water levels closely, especially during dry weather, but had never been close to considering the use of a water shortage direction so it was not something it has had to manage previously.
"The Resource Management Act doesn't require a standard operating procedure to be in place for us to use a water shortage direction, however, it's a tool we have chosen to develop this year in response to an ongoing dry summer and as part of work to prepare for the impacts of climate change," Omundsen said.
"By putting a standard operating procedure in place, staff and councillors have been able to prepare themselves and consider ahead of time how a water shortage direction will be used if it is needed in future."
January and February have been very dry when compared with average conditions. Figures to the end of February show rainfall is 5 to 30 percent of average across the region.
Omundsen said the exceptionally dry conditions were starting to put the region's waterways under unusual pressure.
Rivers in west at lowest flow ever
Rivers in the Western Bay of Plenty are experiencing the most extreme response, with the lowest flows on record being commonly recorded. Eastern areas have experienced some rainfall in the ranges to replenish some of the major rivers a little, but catchments and rivers are also low.
Whakatāne, Kawerau and Opotiki district councils have been encouraging their residents to conserve water as much as possible but only Tauranga City and Western Bay of Plenty district councils have needed to put in formal restrictions such as sprinkler bans.
"We haven't reached the threshold for extra water restrictions yet, but we're getting close and making preparations to act if it's needed," Omundsen said.
"We've had small amounts of rain recently but need significantly more to really make a difference.
"If we do have to put a water shortage direction in place, we'll inform consent holders and water users in the affected catchments about the direction details at that time. It would be a temporary measure until we get enough rain to restore and sustain minimum base flows."
Councillors raised questions as to who would be excluded from taking water if a water directive were to be put in place. It was discussed that water bottlers would be the first to go.
Mauao councillor Matemoana McDonald said water bottling had an impact on the region's various water supplies and the council needed to be very specific when applying these water directives as the situation could be different from catchment to catchment.
Western Bay of Plenty councillor Norm Bruning said he felt like it might be a "knee-jerk" reaction to the situation.
"I've been around long enough to have seen this before," he said. "This is a cycle it goes through every few years."
'More agile response'
The point of delegating the decision to the regional council chief executive is to ensure that the decision can be made in a timely manner.
Before this resolution was passed, a full council meeting was required for a decision to be made, every time a decision was required.
"By delegating that responsibility to the chief executive, it streamlines the process by avoiding the need for a full council meeting every time a water directive is to be issued or amended," Omundsen said.
"This will assist regional council to deliver a more agile response to changes in weather and waterway flow levels."
People can help avoid the need for new restrictions by checking for leaks, reducing water use and making sure they are not taking water illegally.
They can call the regional council's pollution hotline on 0800 884 883 if they are concerned about low water flows or potentially illegal water takes.