Regional Plans

The NPSFM now sets out prescriptive requirements for regional plans. 

Plan-making involves the amalgamation of technical information with community values and aspirations. Relevant technical information includes data about the existing environment and trends in water quality, water allocation and land use. Other important information includes the identification of freshwater matters of national significance as described above, as well as iwi, hapÅ« and community values. The relevant scale is now the freshwater management unit.  MfE has developed guidance as to how to identify freshwater management units. 

Given the scale of the freshwater planning task required by the NPSFM, regional councils may decide to prioritise some areas. This will ensure that freshwater objectives and associated methods are put in place for the most valued or threatened freshwater management units first.

Regional councils often use zone committees or similar stakeholder groups to determine the values, attributes, freshwater objectives and methods required to implement the NPSFM.  

The freshwater objectives and limits set by regional councils must give effect to the objectives in the NPSFM.

Plans may also identify voluntary measures to the extent that these require council resources. For example, a council may decide to provide funding support for riparian fencing, and if so will need to include such commitments in the annual budget and long-term council community plan under the Local Government Act 2000.

The regional plan should define anticipated environmental results that are measureable and can be used to assess the extent to which the desired objectives are attained. Monitoring is essential to determine the existing environment at any point in time and to assess how effective the plan provisions are over time. Monitoring is often a condition of major consents. While this may assist with information collection, it is not a substitute for a region-wide programme of freshwater monitoring.

A regional plan should include a robust monitoring framework for the regular measurement of water quantity, water quality, and the ecological health of water bodies that accords with the NPSFM. It is important that the monitoring framework is designed as an integral part of the plan, so that there is a clear link between the plan’s objectives and the council’s ongoing monitoring programme. The cost of monitoring will need to be included in the long term council community plan and annual budgets.


A regional plan should provide a robust framework to manage water allocation (in terms of both quality and quantity) and address any cumulative impacts of water abstraction or pollution.

Water quality allocation and efficiency

In terms of quantity, as a first step, the NPSFM requires that regional councils set freshwater objectives and environmental flows and/or levels for all freshwater management units in its region. These provisions need to ensure a variation of flow when this is required to maintain a healthy ecological system or other important cultural or recreational values. The plan needs to include clear rules to ensure that these environmental flows are not breached.

The NPSFM requires that regional plans set limits, to achieve the freshwater objectives and environmental flows and/or levels. Clear rules then need to be established to ensure that water cannot be over-allocated. Because estimating the yield of aquifers is a much less exact science than for surface water, there needs to be a margin between permitted takes from aquifers and estimated yield, to allow for the greater degree of uncertainty.

The NPSFM requires every regional council to make or change regional plans to provide for the efficient allocation of fresh water to activities, within the limits set in the plan. The default first-in first-served system, often fails to ensure that water is allocated to the use with the highest value and will not necessarily promote sustainable management as is required under the RMA.

Regional plans can also include a priority regime to establish how water takes are to be restricted when an environmental flow or minimum level has nearly been reached. The priority may be based on prior appropriation (last user to receive a consent is cut off first), pro-rata reduction (all users have their take reduced by the same proportion) or users grouped into tiers according to priority. 2045

 These measures could also be used to address over-allocation. The NPSFM requires every regional council to set a defined timeframe and methods in regional plans by which over-allocation must be phased out, including by reviewing water permits and consents to help ensure the total amount of water allocated in the water body is reduced to the level set in the plan.

In practice, regional councils are also likely to consider measures that do not require a reduction of water take to achieve plan limits, such as water storage or managed aquifer recharge.  The environmental effects of these measures will need to be carefully considered.

Water permits should include conditions requiring water takes to be measured and monitored. There are now mandatory requirements for measuring water takes for some water permits. Many councils do not know how much water is currently being used which makes effective management difficult. Water metering provides councils with better information to assist with setting allocations based on reasonable use. It also enables councils to assess effects on water bodies and to ensure compliance with consent conditions. Water metering also supports demand management, as if people know the volume of water they are using, they are more likely to conserve water. 2046

Measures to provide for technical efficiency in the use of water include repairing leaky infrastructure, replacing old inefficient technology, not watering soils over field capacity and re-designing infrastructure for example piping water instead of having open channels.

Councils have various means of dealing with the issues that arise when there is very high demand to take water from a particular source. They often identify the minimum flows that can be sustained by the water body, and specify the maximum amount of water that can be taken from it on that basis.

Some councils operate a waiting list approach, so that where a water body is fully allocated no more consents to take water are granted until water becomes available. Alternatively, councils may use a rationing system so that when a water body becomes fully allocated, existing consents are reviewed and adjusted to reduce allocations. 2047 . Increasing the amount of water available is also likely to be considered, such as through water storage.

Pollution/Assimilative capacity allocation

Regional plans need to include mechanisms to effectively manage the cumulative impacts of land use and discharge on water quality to ensure that freshwater management objectives and limits are met. This is likely to require that contaminant load limits are set at the catchment, sub-catchment or property level. It is also likely to require rules controlling land use change, such as urban development or dairy intensification, where such activities may adversely impact on water quality in a sensitive or pressured catchment. Where existing land use are having negative cumulative effect on water quality, restriction on activities such as fertiliser application or stocking rates may be required.

Allocation of nutrient discharge allowances to farming industries is particularly challenging, but essential to control the cumulative effect of diffuse discharges of nutrients. 

Options for allocation of pollution/assimilative capacity for nutrients (particularly nitrogen) as part of measures to achieve water quality limits or targets include:

  • Allocation of nitrogen loads according to specific land uses.  This involves setting a total allowable nitrogen  loss per industry, to meet an overall loss limit.  Where receiving waters are over-allocated, proportional reductions may be required across industries to meet a target  over time.  The industry allocation is distributed over the existing land area – or reduced land area if a pro rata reduction is required.  The area of land for each land use type could potentially be increased if targets are met.
  • Managing at the property boundary to meet water quality limits.  This involves requiring water quality requirements set in the plan to be met at the property boundary.  Landowners meet them by whatever means they consider necessary. 
  • Allocation of a discharge allowance to properties based on Land Use Capability (LUC).  LUC involves classifying land based on soil types and other variables according to its ability to sustain productive land use.  Land that is more able to sustain productive land use is allocated a higher discharge allowance.  The actual discharge allowances can be linked to a desired water quality outcome via an overall catchment or sub-catchment yield.
  • “Grandparenting” existing discharges, or requiring a proportional reduction from existing where required to meet targets.  This can involve “benchmarking” existing discharges over a period of time.  An example is Canterbury’s Variation 5.  A property’s allowance is based on its highest year of leaching over a 5 year period, established using Overseer. Proportional reductions over time are required.
  • Allocating the same nutrient loss allowance per hectare based on a catchment average.
  • A  Land Cover or Sector Average where specific land uses are allocated the same nutrient allowance and existing uses must comply with sector or land  cover specific allowances to achieve a target reduction
  • Cap and trade: An allocation limit is established and distributed among land owners, who are then able to trade any allocation that they do not use.  The Taupo and Rotorua lakes are being managed with different versions of this approach.
  • Good management practice or best management practice requirements

All of these options have different benefits and costs.  Many are highly reliant on discharge modelling tools such as Overseer.  Farm management plans are sometimes used to ensure compliance with property-level contaminant leaching limits.  There can be issues with regional council and industry consultant capacity to produce and approve large numbers of farm management plans.

In addition to limits and allocation, regional plans could be expected to include provisions which require the adoption of best management practice for individual activities, in order to reduce their impact on freshwater bodies. Examples of such best practice measures are described in the sections focused on specific activities.

  1. Memon, A and P Skelton, 2007, Institutional arrangements and planning practices to allocate freshwater resources in New Zealand: A way forward, New Zealand Journal of Environmental Law, Vol 11, 241-277, at 256-257

  2. Ministry for the Environment, 2009, On Tap?: Attitudes, behaviours, and perceptions of household water use- informing demand management, Ministry for  the  Environment, Wellington, available at

  3. Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 2004, Water programme of action: Water allocation and use, technical working paper, Ministry for the Environment, available at

Last updated at 9:39AM on April 3, 2018