Our priorities

Our history of land development over generations (often actively encouraged by governments of the day) has had an enormous impact on water quality in Northland today. While modern land use and development practices have improved, we are still dealing with the legacy of the past including deforestation, loss of wetlands and the impacts of rural and urban land use.

Demand for water has grown with our economy and population - managing water quantity is about striking the right balance between water being taken and used, while ensuring enough remains to support healthy aquatic life, cultural values and recreational use.

For Māori, this legacy of land development has damaged the mauri (life force) of water, affecting their ability to sustain their way of life undermining their values and the principles of kaitiakitanga.

The government has set new policy direction on managing freshwater through the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020 (NPS-FM). This includes strong direction to involve Māori and apply the concept of Te Mana o Te Wai in managing water – this includes a requirement to put the health and well-being of waterbodies first.

The NPS-FM also directs regional councils to work with Māori, communities and stakeholders to:

  • Develop a vision and identify values for freshwater
  • Set objectives and limits for a range of water quality ‘attributes’ to improve freshwater values
  • Set water quantity limits to manage allocation
  • Identify and protect wetland and river values
  • Set up water quality and quantity accounting and monitoring and reporting systems to track progress towards objectives.

The government has also released rules that apply nation-wide designed to halt degradation of water quality. These are intended to address ‘high-risk’ farming activities, protect wetlands and provide for fish-passage in rivers – there are also national rules requiring certain classes of livestock be excluded from waterbodies. For more detail see the Essential Freshwater information.

Key challenges

Climate change – Climate change puts additional pressure on already stressed waterbodies and compounds current issues. Projections for Northland include increasing annual average temperature, more ‘hot days’ (>250 C) and an increase in drought frequency, duration and intensity. We can also expect lower groundwater levels and reduced flows, higher water temperature in rivers and lakes, and better conditions for pests which impact the ecological health of these waterbodies and the availability of water for human use.

Te Mana o Te Wai – Central government has embedded the concept of Te Mana o Te Wai and mātauranga Māori in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020. We need to express and give effect to Te Mana o Te Wai and mātauranga Māori from a local Te Taitokerau perspective. This means an ideological change to put the health and mauri of water first and requires the broad participation by Māori in freshwater management (including developing policy, monitoring and ‘action on the ground’).

Sediment – A history of deforestation means our valuable soils continue to be washed off our hillsides and into our waterways. A high proportion(1) of our land is classed as ‘highly erodible’ and sediment is the most widespread contaminant in Northland waterways and its many shallow harbours. It affects the plants and animals that live in these waterbodies and recreational and cultural values.

E. Coli – This is a measure of potential contamination by animals that can pose a risk to human health through contact with water or when gathering kai. Levels of E.coli are often elevated in our rivers particularly after rain – sources are typically from farming and in some cases wildfowl.

Nutrients – Nutrients are an issue in places like dune lakes which don’t flush like rivers. High concentrations of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, can result in nuisance plant growth (such as algae) that affect ecology and water quality in lakes and rivers, especially during warmer periods.

Loss of wetlands – Only about 5% of the original extent of Northland’s wetlands remain as large areas have been converted to pasture or urban use. Wetlands act as giant filters, helping to trap nutrients and sediment. They also support a wealth of indigenous habitats and wildlife, and act as ‘buffers’ in times of flood or drought.

Dune lakes – Dune lakes are rare and precious ecosystems on a global scale and Northland is home to more than 400 of them, including the iconic Kai Iwi Lakes. While water quality and biodiversity are world-class in several of our dune lakes, many others are degrading as a result of nutrient enrichment and pest plants and animals and need our help to recover.

Water supply resilience and reliability – Most water used in Northland is taken from natural waterbodies rather than relying on storage which can mean reliability is reduced during extended dry periods. Our region is prone to droughts which are becoming more common and more extreme with climate change. There are areas in Northland where water is in high demand and has been fully allocated (meaning further extraction is restricted) which could constrain opportunities for growth. This will mean an increasing need for water ‘harvest’ during high flows and storage.


(1) 747,000 hectares or 60% of the region is classified Highly Erodible Land (LUC class 6e, 7e and 8e). Of this, 245,008 hectares is in pasture (about 40% of the region’s total pastoral land).


What do we want to achieve?

  • Community and Māori values and aspirations for freshwater are well understood and water is managed to ensure these values are met.
  • Greater opportunities and capacity for Māori involvement in freshwater management are provided.
  • The potential effects of climate change, economic growth and land use changes on water availability and water quality are understood and this information is used to improve the ecological and cultural health of waterbodies and the reliability of water supplies.
  • An effective and responsive monitoring and compliance regime that incorporates mātauranga Māori is applied to ensure rules and consent conditions are met and issues are proactively addressed early.