National water quality standards are being introduced for rivers and lakes for the first time.
In an announcement in the industrial Lower Hutt suburb of Seaview, Environment Minister Amy Adams and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said the new standards balanced economic growth and environmental sustainability.
Standing on the bank of Waiwhetu Stream, Ms Adams said the previously heavily polluted waterway, which underwent a $21 million clean-up, showed what could be achieved.
She said the standards would significantly improve the way freshwater was managed.
"For the first time our lakes and rivers will have national standards that must be achieved so that the water quality is suitable for ecosystem and human health."
Ms Adams said the document clearly expressed the special connection iwi had with water.
But Te Wai Maori Trust chair Ken Mair said the rules did not go far enough to preserve lakes and rivers for future generations, and that the focus should be on improving water quality.
A requirement for consultation with iwi and hapu did not adequately reflect the partnership established in the Treaty of Waitangi, Mr Mair said.
Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said the new standards are a good balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability. He said both rural and urban areas share the blame for poor water quality, and commitment from the whole community is needed to make improvements.
Mr Guy said farming practices would have to change. "We can't have a target of doubling our exports to $64 billion by 2025 without protecting our environment."
Councils are expected to fully implement the national water standards no later than 2026.
Backwards step, says ecologist
Freshwater ecologist Mike Joy from Massey University says the new national water quality standards are a backwards step.
The Government has announced limits for key things like E.coli and nitrates, amongst others. Before it was up to councils to set minimum levels.
Dr Joy says the new limits are actually much higher than councils have previously allowed.
"They're just a completely backwards step. We've gone from around half a milligram per litre for nitrate in our rivers to 6.9, so we're going something like ten times more nitrate allowed in our rivers than before. So that bottom line is now higher than the Yangtze River in China and higher than the Mississippi River."
Dr Joy said it's good to have national benchmarks, but the threshold should have been much much lower.
Concern for human health
The Green Party says the Government's new standards are too watered down to protect human health.
Under the policy, all waterways must be clean enough for wading or boating, but it will be up to local authorities to decide whether to make them safe for swimming.
But environment spokesperson Eugenie Sage says the Government's bottom line is a license to keep polluting.
"Over 60 percent of the monitored river swimming sites are unfit for swimming, because there's too much faecal contamination. We need to improve the health of our rivers, make them fit for swimming - not allow them to decline further."
Ms Sage said effective regulation is needed.