Freshwater and wetlands

Water is one of the most important issues for New Zealanders and yet our waterways are in crisis.

We have lost 90% of our wetlands and our rivers, lakes, and streams are being polluted and too much water is being taken from them.  31 percent of our freshwater plants, 74 percent of our freshwater fish, and 34 percent of our freshwater invertebrates are at risk of extinction. Intensification of land use is a major cause.

The serious loss of wetlands and wetland biodiversity is why ELI has made their protection a high priority. It commissioned the National Wetland Trust to undertake a study on why we continued to lose wetlands, despite strong directives under the 1991 Resource Management Act for councils to protect wetlands from inappropriate land use and development.

The Trust’s report has now been released and it concludes that illegal drainage and a lack of enforcement of regulations and resource consent conditions have been identified  a major reasons for the loss of wetlands in New Zealand. 

Land cover maps produced periodically by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research reveal that the main driver of wetland loss has been conversion to pasture, and they identify the regions where it is occurring. However, it’s unclear which enabling factors have been at play – inadequate policy provisions, inadequate policy application, inadequate monitoring, inadequate enforcement, or a combination of these.

The aim of the study was to detect the weak links in the public policy process that enabled the conversion of almost 5400 hectares of wetland since 1996. Half of that loss was from Southland, mostly from lowlands near or adjacent to Awarua-Waituna – an internationally significant Ramsar wetland. Large areas were also lost from Northland, Waikato and the West Coast regions.

To prepare the report the Trust interviewed regional council science and consent staff, and studied council policy documents. They found that most councils had reasonable policy objectives, and that all regional plans had wetland drainage rules. But they also found a staggeringly low level of public compliance with those rules. It investigated 79 randomly selected freshwater wetlands cleared since 1996, and discovered that none were subject to a resource consent, although most would have required one.

Where consents were issued for wetland loss, half of the councils who completed the survey said that fewer than 50% were followed up to ensure they complied with conditions such as fencing, pest control or legal protection of a compensation site.

Instances were also found of retrospective consents, which means that rather than prosecuting an illegal clearance, the council asked the landowner to apply for an “after the act” consent. In some such cases it was justified because the damage had already occurred and it was therefore appropriate to complete the works to convert the marginal land into pasture.

Even prosecutions under the Environment Court One appear to have been ignored in some cases. Two instances were found where court orders that required remediation of the site back to wetland, but no visible evidence of those remedial works on Google Earth images taken many years later.

An apparent rarity of prosecutions, weak penalties for breaches, and lack of follow up may be encouraging landowners to simply ignore the rules or court orders.

ELI will be analysing the findings of the report and looking at where it may encourage councils to step there efforts to meet their Statutory requirements to protect remaining wetlands and also ensure their policies and consent conditions are complied with.