Hundreds of documents briefing new Government ministers on key policies have been released. Herald journalists have been analysing the Briefings to Incoming Ministers (Bims). Here we look at water.

At a glance

• Between 1994 and 2013, in monitored rivers, nitrate-nitrogen was worsening (55 per cent) at more sites than improving (28 per cent).

• Although the trends for dissolved reactive phosphorus concentrations vary across the country, in monitored rivers levels were improving (42 per cent) at more sites than worsening (25 per cent) between 1994 and 2013.

• Water clarity improved at two-thirds of monitored sites between 1989 and 2013.

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• E. coli concentration was 22 times higher in urban areas and 9.5 times higher in pastoral areas compared with those classified as "native" areas (2009–2013).

• Of the aquatic native species reported on, three-quarters of fish, one third of invertebrates, and one third of plants are threatened with, or at risk of, extinction.

Begin with looking at bottled water tax

Environment officials will begin work for their new minister begin by addressing a tax on bottled water, amid dire warnings about growing demands for freshwater in New Zealand.

They have also raised the idea of increased powers for regional councils, to allow the state to potentially claw back consents where catchments are over-allocated.

In its briefing to incoming minister David Parker, the Ministry for the Environment said an increasing population; growing agriculture-based economy; and lower rainfall project with climate change would all put pressure on water resource.

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Briefings to incoming ministers: The highlights

It said behaviour change and a new approach to allocation was needed to protect waterways and place a higher value on freshwater while at the same time encouraging smarter commercial use.

It said the current "first in, first served" approach meant water may not be allocated equally, and said addressing that system through changes in decision-making and accountability, and better allocation tools should be a priority.

"The ministry's initial thinking is that a new allocation system should include sharper economic incentives which should lead to better decisions on the use of water, both at the individual level and for communities," it said.

"Two examples of sharper economic incentives are a cap and trade system, and a price on water or discharges."

It noted that introducing sharper economic incentives was likely to bring ownership issues to the foreground, and iwi and hapu rights and interests would need to be addressed in that.

Differences in catchments (such as size, land-use intensity, pressure on water takes or levels of pollution) meant that all catchments were different, and a "one-size-fits-all" approach may not be appropriate or necessary, it said.

While change was urgent, officials warned greater speed might bring a better allocation system faster, but at a cost of more disruption. To smooth the transition, funding levers and investment could be adopted.

It said at the minister's direction it would begin work to improve incentives on more efficient use, starting with advice on introducing a royalty on exports of bottled water.

"This will be a significant work programme, designed to support your priorities and choices."

Hapu spokesman Milan Ruka, at Poroti Springs, says an application by Zodiac Holdings to build a water bottling plant is devastating. Photo / File
Hapu spokesman Milan Ruka, at Poroti Springs, says an application by Zodiac Holdings to build a water bottling plant is devastating. Photo / File

Impact of intensification

In its introduction to the portfolio, the ministry said New Zealand's water bodies were "showing the impact" of more than 100 years of intensification of land use in both urban and rural areas.

Clearing of native vegetation, draining of wetlands, farming, forestry, and urbanisation, had all increased pressure on water bodies and their ecosystems.

"For example, New Zealand's population grew 17 per cent from 1996 to 2012, driving a 10 per cent increase in urban land area," it said.

At the same time, the shift to dairy had also increased pressure on the quality of freshwater in rural areas.

The ministry noted that water quality was a major issue with the public, particularly regarding the ability to swim in rivers.

It said the perception of poor, or declining, water quality also put New Zealand's international reputation in key export sectors such as tourism at risk.

Trends in water quality had been mixed, it said, but generally nitrogen was increasing in rural areas, phosphorus was decreasing across the country, and E. coli was showing no clear trend at most sites.

The allocation question

Officials said in a growing number of catchments and aquifers, the volume of water allocated for people to use had reached or exceeded sustainable limits.

For example, of the 36 groundwater allocation zones in Canterbury where quantity limits have been set, 16 are at full allocation or over-allocated.

While management of those issues lay with regional councils, some councils were delaying implementing new policies, which the public had noticed.

The ministry said the current incentives for regional councils often did not align with the outcomes the Government and New Zealand public were seeking.

It recommended a new system to monitor the performance and progress of councils on setting limits and meeting water quality targets, together with regular reviews by an independent body, such as the Office of the Auditor-General, or the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

In addition, the ministry recommended investigating how regional councils' powers could be increased to address over-allocation.

"For example, it is currently difficult for councils to review existing consents and to claw back over-allocated water takes and discharges to water," it said.

Urban areas

In urban areas, there were also indications that the "three waters" (drinking, storm and waste water) were under pressure, the ministry said.

Some councils were reaching the limits of their ability to fund new infrastructure required in high-growth areas.

In other parts of the country, there were suggestions councils with small or declining populations were struggling to maintain water services. Stormwater system upgrades were also needed to cope with increasingly frequent, high intensity rainfalls.

It said further consideration, possibly including the establishment of a water regulator, was needed.

The ministry also updated Parker on the Wai 2358 claim made by the New Zealand Māori Council, however it redacted the update on the second stage of the inquiry from the public document.

It said swimmability targets were a "good start" but might need a timeframe brought forward.

Stock exclusions should be finalised, it said, and the Good Farming Practice action plan released.

Work was under way to improve data, it said, which was important for developing efficient and fair limits to protect and enhance freshwater environments.

The ministry proposed to partner with Niwa and GNS to help them develop a national hydrological model using real-time data.

It recommended a number of early investments including updating information and accounting systems, and developing catchment case studies.

The last page of the report - before the timeline - was redacted.