Auditor-general pans state of water management in New Zealand

12:11 am on 19 February 2020

The Auditor-General has exposed major gaps in the country's water management systems, and is calling for greater national leadership.

The Shotover River near Queenstown.

The Auditor-General says there's no clear vision across local and central government for water management. Photo: Unsplash / Bulb Creative

Auditor General John Ryan's office released a report at Parliament this afternoon about how public organisations are managing water resources and delivering water-related services.

Ryan said there was no clear vision across local and central government for water management, and no clarity about what the main issues were.

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Auditor General John Ryan. Photo: Controller and Auditor General

"What we did not see was clear agreement across central and local government about the vision for New Zealand's water resources - the issues, objectives, and priorities for water management over the long term that all organisations, public and private, should seek to address," Ryan said in his introduction of the report.

"The lack of clarity about what the issues are, how to address them, and who will deliver programmes of work increases the risk that public organisations are not directing their efforts towards the same outcomes."

He said there was also a lack of reliable information about the state of freshwater bodies, which made it difficult to measure if a water project was successful or if taxpayer money was being spent well.

"Because of gaps in this information, those responsible for managing the assets that deliver water-related services are often limited in their ability to make well-informed decisions."

Ryan said public organisations needed to build consensus and work towards a common goal.

He was also calling for more flexibility to resolve water management issues, noting the challenges of striking a balance between competing interests, values, priorities, and mandates.

More can be done to involve Māori

The report said the relationship between the Crown and Māori enshrined in Te Tiriti o Waitangi was central to water management.

Māori were critically important partners for those public organisations managing water resources, the report said.

The office's sector manager for local government, Kristin Aitken, said there was a commitment between Crown and Māori, but more could be done.

"Through the treaty... Māori should be able to have access to decision making processes and involvement in decisions that effect their day to day lives," she said.

"Participative decision making is absolutely critical if we are going to resolve different interests and values associated with water."

Aitken said local and central government and Māori needed to identify a model of working together that would suit both parties.

"Continued Crown engagement and resourcing is needed for current and future arrangements that enable Māori involvement in water management to remain effective."

The report said co-governance and co-management arrangements had been established for iwi and hapū to contribute to the management of water resources.

Low running small river with cluster of trees over and in the water in the distance

The report said the relationship between the Crown and Māori enshrined in Te Tiriti o Waitangi was central to water management. Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

It found they resulted in enduring benefits for Māori and communities, but achieving them could come at a cost for Māori communities and councils.

Aitken said there were instances where Crown-Māori relationships were working well, but she put that down to individual efforts to maintain relationships and manage different values and priorities.

"In the end it comes down to trust and the quality of the relationships that are built at that person to person level."

In August 2019, the Waitangi Tribunal released its report into National Freshwater and Geothermal Resources, recommending that a national freshwater co-governance body be set up to ensure direct co-governance in freshwater decision-making.

The Tribunal also recommended that the Crown provide more funding to restore freshwater bodies and to help Māori participate in the Resource Management Act process; co-designing policy involving Māori interests with Māori be a standard process; and the Crown monitor councils to ensure that they meet their obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

The government has yet to respond to this report.

Minister comments

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said there was an opportunity for greater coherence in what the government did in the water management space.

"We will go through the report and consider the views of the Auditor General."

"What I do know is that our focus as a government is on ensuring that water quality issues are addressed, that's reflected through the National Policy Statement of Freshwater and the consulation that has been undertaken to implimant a stronger enphasis on the quality of freshwater," she said.

The Environment Minister was also approached for comment, but was unable to respond due to being overseas.

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