By: Kate Woods, Tegan Wadworth
The Ministry for the Environment along with Stats NZ have released Our Freshwater 2020, summarising updates and reporting on progress on four priority freshwater issues. 

Our Freshwater 2020 is the latest report on the state of the environment required under the Environmental Reporting Act 2015 (ERA) and builds on Our Freshwater 2017.  The purpose of the ERA is to require regular reports which identify the state of various components of the environment, describe pressures causing any changes, the impact of those pressures and provide an update against any national or international standards.  This report will build on environmental information already held by the Government.

Our Freshwater 2020 focuses on the following four issues:

Native freshwater species and ecosystems are under threat

The Report states that many ecosystems continue to decline in health as a result of:
  • converting land that was previously native forest and draining wetlands;
  • changes to waterway’s natural rate of flow and form; and
  • the introduction of new species into New Zealand.

Water is polluted in urban, farming and forestry areas

Water pollution now affects almost all waterbodies, and is the result of a combination of effects from urban areas, farms and forestry areas.  Groundwater quality varies, however it is improving in some areas.  Other key findings include:
  • pesticides have been detected in groundwater at many sites;
  • concentrations of pollutants in freshwater are higher in urban, farming and forestry areas than in natural conditions; and
  • some freshwater contains emerging contaminants but mostly at low levels.

Changing water flows affect our freshwater

Changes made to water levels, flows and courses in rivers and aquifers affect freshwater.  For example, low river flows reduce the habitat for freshwater fish and artificial structures create barriers to their movement.

Climate change is affecting freshwater in New Zealand

Climate change is already resulting in environmental, cultural and economic impacts.  With regard to freshwater, climate change is expected to affect when, where and how much rainfall, snowfall and drought occur.  Impacts on values such as health and recreation are expected to increase.

Building on previous reports such as Environment Aotearoa 2019, the report also discusses where the most significant knowledge gaps are and how they could be addressed.

Our Freshwater 2020 can be viewed on the Ministry for the Environment website: https://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/environmental-reporting/our-freshwater-2020  
 
The state of the environment brought to light in Our Freshwater 2020 may provide further motivation to implement measures set out in the “Action for Healthy Waterways” package proposed by the Government last year.  A brief overview of the key proposals under the “Action for Healthy Waterways” package can be found here.

However, only time will tell whether the Government’s proposals for improved freshwater management will continue to be one of the issues at the forefront of RMA reform.  Given the current COVID-19 climate, which pushes for fast-tracked consenting processes and prioritisation of development with a focus on job-creation, it remains to be seen whether the “Action for Healthy Waterways” package could be delayed or watered down at the expense of development priorities. 
 
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