Water Conservation Orders

In 1981, provisions were incorporated into the Water and Soil Conservation Act 1967 to provide for the protection of wild and scenic rivers in response to the increasing use of rivers for hydro-electric power generation and irrigation. 2037  These provisions were carried over into Part 9 of the RMA.

A water conservation order is a tool that can be used to recognise and protect the outstanding amenity or intrinsic values that a water body provides, in either a natural or a modified state. An order can be created to protect: 2038

  • The habitat of terrestrial or aquatic species
  • Fisheries
  • Wild, scenic or other natural characteristics
  • Scientific and ecological values
  • Recreational, historical, spiritual or cultural values
  • Characteristics of outstanding significance in accordance with tikanga Maori

Whether or not a value is “outstanding” is assessed on a national basis, with the exception of characteristics in accordance with Tikanga Maori.

Water conservation orders can apply to rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, wetlands, geothermal water or aquifers. They work by identifying the outstanding characteristics or values of a water body and then put in place restrictions or prohibitions to protect those characteristics. They affect how the regional council can manage the resource. In particular they can restrict management measures that affect: 2039

  • Quantity, quality, rate of flow or level of the water body
  • Maximum, minimum or range of levels or flows, or the rate of change of levels of flows
  • Maximum allocation for extraction or maximum contaminant loading
  • Ranges of temperatures and pressure in the water body

Anyone can apply for a water conservation order. Applications must be made in writing to the Minister for the Environment and should identify the water body concerned, state the reasons for the application and, in particular, the outstanding values for which protection is sought, and describe the provisions which are sought to be included in the water conservation order and the effect that such provisions would have on the water body. 2040  There is a charge (currently $1000) for lodging an application for a water conservation order and an applicant will need well-qualified professionals to support the application through the hearings process.

Once an application is lodged it is processed in the following manner: 2041

  • After receiving an application, the Minister decides whether to reject the application or to appoint a special tribunal to hear and report on it
  • The tribunal publicly notifies the application and calls for submissions.
  • Any person may make submissions within 20 working days using Form 30.
  • The tribunal holds a public hearing
  • When considering the application the tribunal is to have special regard to the application, the submissions, the needs of primary and secondary industry and the community, and relevant policy statements and plans.
  • The tribunal prepares a report on the application with a recommendation.
  • The applicant and any submitter may make a submission to the Environment Court in relation to the tribunal's recommendations
  • If it receives submissions, the Environment Court conducts an inquiry and makes a report to the Minister.
  • The Minister then decides whether or not to recommend to the Governor General to make the water conservation order. If the Minister does not accept a Court's recommendation to proceed, he or she must put before the House of Representatives written reasons for the decision.

Once such an order is in place, resource consents granted after its creation must not be contrary to any restriction, prohibition or other provision of the order. 2042  In addition, regional policy statements, regional plans and district plans may not be inconsistent with the order.

After a water conservation order has been in place for two years, any person can apply to revoke or amend the order so it is does not necessarily provide permanent protection. Such an application is normally processed in the same way as an application for a water conservation order. Where the application will, in the opinion of the Minister for the Environment, result in a minor effect and the original applicant for the order and the regional council agrees to the amendment the Minister can recommend the amendment without going through the inquiry process. 2043

The process for the consideration of applications for water conservation orders within the Canterbury region are different as a result of the Environment Canterbury (Transitional Governance Arrangements) Act 2016.


Click here for a list of current water conservation orders.


  1. Berry S and B Matheson, 2005, ‘Water’, in D Nolan (ed) Environmental and resource management law (3rd Edition), LexisNexis NZ Limited, Wellington

  2. Section 199 Resource Management Act 1991

  3. Section 200 Resource Management Act 1991

  4. Section 201 Resource Management Act 1991

  5. Sections 202 to 215 Resource Management Act 1991

  6. Section 217 Resource Management Act 1991

  7. Section 216 Resource Management Act 1991

Last updated at 6:09PM on November 16, 2017