New Zealand’s Water Governance Experiment

Pastoral Landscape surrounding Lake Rotorua

Pastoral Landscape surrounding Lake Rotorua

New Zealand is known internationally for its clean and green image, attracting visitors from around the globe to experience its natural treasures. Meanwhile, New Zealand is known on the world market for its agricultural exports, particularly milk, beef, lamb and wool. In the last few decades the country has seen these two national identities come into conflict over the issue of clean water. This summer, with the support of the National Science Foundation’s East Asian Pacific Summer Institutes Fellowship, I’m in New Zealand researching what this conflict of values means for the future of governance and land use at the watershed scale. I’m learning that it is both innovative and ripe with difficult social, cultural, environmental and economic trade-offs.

In 2011, the New Zealand central government released a National Policy Statement (NPS) for Freshwater Management to mandate regional councils to set limits for water quantity and quality in every catchment in the country. At a high level, the Freshwater NPS can be seen as an effort to limit degradation of all water bodies in the country to protect these highly valued natural resources. This means facing up to the challenge of managing past, present and future land use for the sake of clean water.

View from the Western Bays of iconic Lake Taupo, the largest Freshwater Lake in New Zealand]

View from the Western Bays of iconic Lake Taupo, the largest Freshwater Lake in New Zealand

The Freshwater NPS gives power to regional councils to choose processes and policies that best fit the local freshwater context. In essence, the NPS for Freshwater Management has transformed New Zealand into a natural laboratory for water governance as each catchment will ultimately be fitted with its own unique set of policies to govern water quality and quantity limits. This variation can already be seen in the policies implemented and proposed throughout the country. These include market-based instruments, community-based catchment plans, and public-private partnerships through industry-led initiatives.

In my research, I’m focusing on two catchments, Lake Taupo and Lake Rotarua, that are on the cutting edge of water governance. Both catchments have elected to implement variations of a nutrient cap-and-trade policy. As it stands, Lake Taupo is the only functioning cap-and-trade policy in the world that regulates and facilitates nutrient trading between agricultural producers.

Nutrient runoff from agricultural land use is concern for water quality throughout New Zealand

Nutrient runoff from agricultural land use is concern for water quality throughout New Zealand

So what is there to learn about water quality governance from these two case studies? In order to regulate diffuse nutrient emissions in each catchment, decisions must be made about how to measure, attribute, and monitor nutrient flows, how to define changes in land management and land use required, and how to enforce those changes despite uncertainty all throughout the system. What’s more, there is ambiguity as to who should bear the burden to pay for clean water. In Lake Taupo and Lake Rotorua, these decisions have been made or are in the process of being made to address each of these elements of uncertainty and ambiguity.

From a research perspective, I’m interested in how these unique water governance systems affect behavior and land use. To investigate this, I have been traversing the Taupo and Rotorua catchments to interview farmers and key stakeholders in order to learn about the farm systems, nutrient management decisions, changes in farm management, and details of the policy process. Without the ability to measure nutrient and water quality changes in real-time, these behavior and land use changes are the best pieces of information we have as to whether water quality will improve. But at this early stage in the life of these policies, we don’t have a good idea of if, why or how these policies are working. This is what I hope to find out and am exploring through my PhD research with E4A.

Courtney Hammond Wagner is a PhD candidate in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources; she is also a fellow at the Gund Institute and the Economics for the Anthropocene project.

Courtney NZ4 2016

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