Water Regulation Changes – What’s Next?

The next thing in the pipeline (excuse the pun!) are changes to the National Environmental Standards for Sources of Human Drinking Water (NES–DW). The focus of these standards is to protect sources of drinking water, and the Ministry for the Environment released a consultation document seeking feedback on the proposed changes.


The Ministry of Health’s most recently available data (2019/20) indicates that 21% of New Zealanders did not have access to water that fully complies with safety requirements for bacteria, microorganisms and chemicals. Given this statistic and considering issues such as the 2016 Havelock North water supply contamination, tighter regulations are necessary.

One of the major implications of the proposed changes for the rural sector is how these fit with the recently passed Water Services Act 2021. This Act defines you as a water supplier if you supply water to more than just your household. For example, this will now cover farms where water is supplied to workers’ accommodation. The consultation document indicates that there will be more than 75,000 of these small supplies! The Act means you will have to register and comply with water supply rules, i.e. deliver water that meets the standard and provide proof.

The proposed changes to the NES–DW mean every registered supply will need to define Source Water Risk Management Areas. These will encompass the immediate area around the source (to consider the short-term impacts), a larger area (where the medium-term risks are considered) and the whole catchment (where long-term and cumulative effects can be considered).

Default zones are proposed for river, lake and groundwater supplies. As an example, the proposed default zones for drinking water supplied from groundwater are: Zone 1 – 5m radius around the bore; Zone 2 – one year of travel time within the aquifer (up to 2.5km); and Zone 3 – the entire catchment.

The idea of the proposed changes is that stringent controls would be imposed within Zone 1. In Zone 2, the intent is to remove high-risk activities and require that consent applications within the zone consider the effects of the activity on the drinking water source. No additional restrictions are proposed in Zone 3, although effects upon the drinking water source will need to be assessed for any proposed activity.

There is the ability to establish bespoke methodologies, rather than use the default protection zones. What would be involved in developing these is not certain at this time, although it is positive that alternative solutions can be provided where there is specialist expertise coupled with a good understanding of the water source and its catchment.

Regional Councils will be required to map the zones. With so many small suppliers, it’s likely that the zones could cover a substantial proportion of Canterbury.

Should this concern farmers?

The development and mapping of the risk management areas seems like an appropriate and logical way forward to help protect all drinking water supplies. As such, this part of the process shouldn’t be of major concern. However, the devil will be in the detail of how and when to assess these effects, and how to determine whether an activity will be acceptable. As such, it’s the implementation that needs careful consideration.

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