To improve the management of sources of human drinking-water, a number of national policy options could be considered, including:

  • do nothing (status quo)

  • non-regulatory measures (eg, partnership with regional councils, production of voluntary guidelines and providing information on the locations of water supplies )

  • amend the RMA

  • a national policy statement

  • a national environmental standard.

This section explains these options and assesses their appropriateness for achieving the policy objectives.

3.1 Policy objective

The policy objective is to reduce the risk of contamination of drinking-water sources by:

  • contributing to a multi-barrier approach to managing human drinking-water

  • ensuring there is a catchment component to managing human drinking-water, by making certain there are controls within drinking-water supply catchments.

Each of the options was compared against the policy objective to determine which would be the most effective way to meet the objective.

3.2 Status quo

The status quo in relation to the management of sources of human drinking-water is variable. Some regional councils’ approaches are comprehensive, while others do not include any reference to drinking-water supplies (Ministry for the Environment, 2004). (For a more detailed assessment of the status quo, see chapter 2 under ‘New Zealand context’.)

Without any central government support or regulation, regional council plans and practices may slowly tend towards improving protection of sources of drinking-water. However, there is no guarantee that this will occur. Without government intervention, the extent to which drinking-water sources are taken into consideration is likely to continue to be nationally inconsistent.

3.3 Non-regulatory approach

In this approach the Ministry for the Environment could, through the use of voluntary measures, encourage and support regional councils, treatment plant operators, drinking-water assessors and district health boards to improve the management of drinking-water sources. There would be a range of measures to support local government, but no compulsion for regions to improve practice or implement guidance. These measures could include:

  • recommended protocols for consulting with treatment plant operators on relevant resource consents

  • partnership models to improve communication between regional councils, water treatment plant operators, public health units (particularly drinking-water assessors) and consent applicants

  • providing accurate information on the locations of drinking-water treatment plants and abstraction points (eg, using the geo-referenced Water Information New Zealand database)

  • issuing best practice guidelines on how to assess the potential effects of various activities on drinking-water source quality, and how to develop appropriate consent conditions or regional plan rules.

This approach could well lead to improvements in how councils manage the effects of activities on drinking-water sources. However, without regulatory compulsion there is no guarantee that councils would explicitly include consideration of drinking-water sources in their decisions (although some of these measures could usefully complement and support regulatory options).

3.4 RMA amendment

The RMA could be amended to make it clear that councils need to explicitly consider effects on drinking-water sources when preparing plans and making decisions on resource consents. However, the RMA is an enabling and broad-scale piece of legislation. Amending the head statute to accommodate specific matters as they arise would make the legislation unnecessarily complex. The RMA provides for more specific matters to be addressed through regulation-making powers (such as national environmental standards) for individual environmental management issues.

Legislative amendments are also often more expensive and time-consuming than other options. In addition, it is more difficult to amend legislation if changes are needed at a later date (eg, if amendments are made to the Drinking-water Standards for New Zealand).

3.5 National policy statement

Part 5 of the RMA provides for the Minister of the Environment to issue national policy statements “to state objectives and policies on matters of national significance that are relevant to achieving the purpose of this Act”.[To date, no national policy statements, other than the mandatory New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement, have been issued in New Zealand. However, several are under consideration at the time of writing.]

These take effect in one of four ways. Local authorities must:

  • give effect to the national policy statement (NPS) by amending a regional policy statement or plan (in line with the timeframe specified in the NPS, or “as soon as practicable”)

  • when making a decision on a resource consent application, have regard to a NPS

  • when making a recommendation on a notice of requirement, have particular regard to a NPS

  • take any other action specified in a NPS.

For example, a NPS could be prepared stating that protection of drinking-water sources is a matter of national significance. This would give clear guidance to consent authorities that they need to have regard to effects on sources of human drinking-water when making decisions on resource consents, and when preparing plans and regional policy statements.

However, there are limitations to the certainty about decision-making that could be achieved by a NPS alone. National environment standards establish objectives and policies; they do not establish methods or rules (ie, they do not establish how the objectives and policies are to be achieved). Therefore, there could be a wide variation of interpretation of the NPS requirements at the individual council level. This may not achieve sufficient consistency to ensure the protection of drinking-water sources around the country.

A NPS could also be viewed as elevating the status of drinking-water above other values. This is not the policy objective. The policy objective is to ensure there is a catchment component to drinking-water management, rather than elevating it above all other potential uses or values.

3.6 National environmental standard

The RMA enables the Minister for the Environment to prepare national environmental standards. These have the force of regulation and are binding on local authorities. Standards can prescribe methods or requirements and be either quantitative or qualitative. Section 43 of the RMA outlines the matters that can be covered by a NES (see Appendix 8).

National environmental standards can be more prescriptive instruments than national policy statements and legislation. This provides some key benefits over other options. A NES would fulfil the policy objectives by providing certainty about the outcomes of decision-making on resource consents and policy provisions. The NES requirements would also remove any remaining ambiguity over whether to consider effects on human health when making decisions on these matters.

3.7 Comparison of alternatives

Of the options considered, the only two that are appropriate to meet the policy objectives are:

  • RMA amendment

  • national environmental standard.

These options can compel by legislation or regulation. None of the other options are appropriate, because they would not satisfy the policy objectives of ensuring a catchment component to managing human drinking-water, and making certain there are controls within drinking-water supply catchments. A national policy statement will not ensure there is a catchment component to managing human drinking-water, or make certain there are controls within drinking-water catchments. This is because it can only state objectives and policies, not how to achieve them. As a result, a NPS alone cannot be sufficiently specific to ensure that necessary controls are applied in drinking-water catchments.

A NES was considered a more appropriate instrument than a RMA amendment for the following reasons.

  • A NES is a more specific instrument. It allows for more prescriptive requirements than the legislative amendments suggested (eg, notification of water treatment plant operators). It is less open to interpretation, providing more direction and certainty to practitioners. This means there is a decreased likelihood of the intention of the policy being diluted.

  • A NES can be more readily and quickly amended than legislation if later changes are required.

  • Alterations to legislation are likely to be more expensive and take longer than the promulgation of a NES, since the steps to be followed are more numerous and arduous than for implementing a NES. There may also be regulatory inconsistency between regions, depending on how councils interpret instructions such as “recognise and provide for”. Implementation is likely to be protracted, so changes may not be made until the time of scheduled plan reviews.

Having considered the available alternatives, a national environmental standard was considered the most appropriate means of achieving the policy objective.