Water pollution in New Zealand

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A sign warning of water pollution on the Waimakariri River, 2004

Water pollution in New Zealand is an increasing concern for those who use and care for waterways and New Zealand regulatory bodies. An increase in population is linked to an increase in water pollution, due to a range of causes such as rural land use, industrial use and urban development. Fresh water quality is under pressure from agriculture, hydropower, urban development, pest invasions and climate change.[1] While pollution from point sources has been reduced, diffuse pollution such as nutrients, pathogens and sediments development and from stormwater in towns is not under control. There are more than 800 water quality monitoring sites around New Zealand that are regularly sampled.[2]

Water quality guidelines[edit]

Guideline standards for water quality are published by MfE.[3]

e.coli / 100ml
< 130 no calculated risk level
131–260 above NCRL
261–550 substantial elevation of Campylobactor infection
> 550 above level of significant risk of infection

Water pollution by sector[edit]


Agriculture is a major use of lowland areas of New Zealand and has affected water quality. The expansion of intensive dairy production has resulted in greater levels of nitrogen in soil, surface and groundwater.[4]

In 1993, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research summarised available data on the quality of water in rivers. They concluded that "Some lowland river reaches in agriculturally developed catchments are in poor condition" reflecting "agriculturally derived diffuse and point source waste inputs in isolation or in addition to urban or industrial waste inputs". The key contaminants identified in lowland rivers were dissolved inorganic nitrogen, dissolved reactive phosphorus, sediment and coliforms. Small streams in some dairy farming areas such as the Waikato and Canterbury were identified as being in relatively poor condition.[5]

Sediment from erosion of hills and river banks is also a source of pollution of waters. The sediments loading from high intensity, increasing frequency storm and high rainfall events has led to millions of tonnes of sediment changing fluvial systems in NZ waterways. This sediment contains high organic contents from forest litter which is changing sedimentation patterns and increasing organic bed loads and deposition in NZ lakes and shallow coastal waters.

Since 2005 increased dairy farming rates of grazing animals have outstripped riparian planting and the ability of some Regional councils to manage and mitigate impacts on the quality of water., and there is some evidence of urea use leading to nitrogen levels in waterways. Horticulture, arable farming and plantation forestry generally have less effect than dairy farming.[2]

In 2001 Fish and Game New Zealand started the high-profile dirty dairying campaign to highlight the effect of pollution from farming intensification on the ecological health of freshwater environments. As a reaction to this campaign Fonterra, the largest dairy company in New Zealand, along with a number of government agencies instigated the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord to address water pollution due to dairy farming. The aim of the Accord is to limit the access of stock to waterways. Fonterra exports the majority of its produce, and encourages farmers to limit environmental impacts as a method of getting environmentally aware consumers to purchase their products. The increase in research into sustainable farming and reducing fertilizer use, increasing the planting of native shrubs, grasses, flaxes and trees along the margins of streams. These techniques help intercept run off of manure, sediments and fertilizer and use them to enhance growth of the planted zones.

In 2016, a controversial video by Greenpeace highlighted the contribution of dairy farming to river pollution, stating that over 60 percent of monitored rivers are unsafe to swim in.[6] This video advertisement was appealed by DairyNZ, but the Advertising Standards Authority found in favour of Greenpeace.[7]


Surface water drain cover in Rotorua showing advisory fish symbol

Urban runoff is polluted with detergents, waste oil, litter and fecal matter. Some stormwater drains have a fish logo pained on the curb to highlight stormwater pollution.


Industrial processing frequently involves the discharge of process waste-water to waterways. For example, Fonterra has been discharging wastewater containing milk condensate into the Tui River, a tributary of the Mangatainoka River, and is applying for resource consents to continue doing so.[8] The Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill, now owned by Norske Skog, has been discharging waste into the Tarawera River since 1955.[9]


High numbers of visitors to parks and other areas where there are no toilets is increasing the chance of pollution from human waste. In alpine areas, where anaerobic digestion of fecal matter is slow, the Department of Conservation have sewerage holding tanks on the toilets at backcountry huts. The sewerage is flown out by helicopter for treatment elsewhere. Freedom camping, a popular activity in some areas, is suspected of causing water pollution due to the incorrect disposal of human waste.

Urban areas[edit]

The most significant source of water pollution in urban areas is due to sewerage. Broken sewers and faulty connections allow sewerage to enter stormwater systems.[2] Also, during flooding sewerage pumping stations are inundated with the floodwaters and sewerage is released.

Water run-off from roads contains pollutants such as zinc, copper, lead and hydrocarbons from vehicle wear, vehicle emissions and from the road surface itself.[2] Urban areas have large amounts of paved surface therefore there is a higher likelihood that water contaminated with organic matter will not be filtered through soils.

Sediment run-off from exposed soils in new subdivisions does occur and if it occurs due to breaches of the resource consent prosecution may result. To limit sediment run-off during earthworks straw bales and stormwater settling ponds are used. These are completely inadequate in high rainfall events where the interceptors are over whelmed and silt laden waters flow into streams and rivers.

Water pollution by region[edit]

Regional councils have the responsibility to address water use and misuse issues as set out in the Resource Management Act, a significant Act of Parliament that regulates natural and physical resources such as land, air and water. Differing land use and climate means that water pollution varies across the regions.

Water trends for selected regions (as of 2004)[10]
Region Allocation and abstraction[clarification needed] Water
Surface water quality Groundwater
Surface water Ground water Surface water Ground water Micro biological Inorganic Micro biological Inorganic Proposed irrigation schemes
Canterbury Increasing Increasing Uncertain Uncertain Uncertain Uncertain Uncertain Decreasing Increasing
Hawke's Bay Increasing Increasing Steady Decreasing Uncertain Uncertain Uncertain Decreasing Increasing
Waikato Increasing Increasing Uncertain Uncertain Decreasing Decreasing Uncertain Decreasing Steady
Southland Steady Increasing Steady Steady Uncertain Uncertain Decreasing Uncertain Uncertain

The above table is an aggregate of water trends in the regions and it shows no trends in water quality improvement or the related issue of water abstraction. However, there are observed improvements in water quality for some water bodies in some cases.

Bay of Plenty[edit]

The Tarawera River, nicknamed "the black drain", has had a history of water pollution, predominantly due to industrial activity. In 2009, the Tasman Mill gained permission to continue polluting the river for the next 25 years.[11]


Historically much of Canterbury has been dry land and arable farming but there has been a huge increase in dairy farming in the region. Dairy farming in Canterbury requires large amounts of irrigation since the average rainfall is too low to support dairy cow pastures.

The Central Plains Water scheme, currently going through the hearing process in order to obtain a resource consent, is a controversial plan due in part to the anticipated impact on water quality. When completed it will be used to irrigate 60,000 ha of the Canterbury Plains with water taken from the Rakaia and Waimakariri Rivers.

The Heathcote River has been subjected to a number of recent pollution incidents.


In Southland effluent from dairy sheds used for more than 50 cows needs a resource consent. Environment Southland recommends effluent is spread at a rate of eight hectares per 100 cows and should not applied to wet soils.[12] In 2012, Otago Regional Council carried out 19 prosecutions for incidents of pollution, twice as many as in 2011. The majority of the pollution incidents were of dairy effluent.[13]


In Taranaki, there are 1400 dairy sheds where the dairy effluent drains into streams instead of being sprayed to land, according to data from Taranaki Regional Council's 2012 State of the Environment report.[14] In 2012, the president of the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society expressed surprise at the number of consented dairy discharges to streams, given most other regional councils prosecute dairy farmers who allow dairy effluent to enter waterways.[15]


The Waikato has had a long history of dairy farming and has some of the most productive soils in the country. Water quality, especially as shown by the indicators of conductivity and pH, in the Waikato Region is deteriorating.[16]

The Waikato River has a high level of pollution due to various point and non-point sources.

West Coast[edit]

The West Coast receives a high rainfall so any potential pollution will be diluted to some degree.

Until recently untreated sewerage was being discharged into the Grey River but government funding was made available to build a sewerage treatment plant.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gluckman, Sir Peter (12 April 2017). "New Zealand's Fresh Waters" (PDF). Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.
  2. ^ a b c d Environment Aotearoa 2015. Ministry for the Environment. October 2015. ISBN 978-0-478-41298-7.
  3. ^ Microbiological water quality guidelines for marine and freshwater recreational areas, MfE, June 2003, pp. H26
  4. ^ "Environmental pressures rising in New Zealand". OECD. 21 March 2017.
  5. ^ Smith, CM; Wilcock, RL; Vant, WN; Smith, DG; Cooper, AB (April 1993). "Freshwater quality in New Zealand and the influence of forestry, population driven land subdivision horticulture and large scale pastoral land uses such as agriculture". Consultancy Report No. MAF056. National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.
  6. ^ Save Our Rivers (video). Greenpeace NZ. 2016.
  7. ^ "Greenpeace wins advert battle". NZ Herald. 8 January 2017.
  8. ^ Ray, Adam (18 May 2012). "Discharge hearing over Tui river". 3 News. Retrieved 4 November 2012.
  9. ^ "Iwi not giving up fight against Tasman mill discharges". Radio New Zealand. 18 December 2010. Retrieved 18 December 2010.
  10. ^ PCE (October 2004). Growing for good: Intensive farming, sustainability and New Zealand's environment. Wellington: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. ISBN 1-877274-51-8. Retrieved 2008-09-18.
  11. ^ "Mill gets 25-year pollution consent - Business - NZ Herald News". Nzherald.co.nz. 2009-10-16. Retrieved 2013-09-06.
  12. ^ "Farm Dairy Effluent". Environment Southland. Retrieved 2008-09-13.
  13. ^ Fox, Rebecca (31 August 2012). "Number of farmers prosecuted more than doubles in 12 months". Otago Daily Times. Retrieved 31 August 2012. In the past year, more than twice as many Otago farmers have been prosecuted for offences - mainly relating to dairy effluent and pugging - than the year before.
  14. ^ Stewart, Rachel (10 December 2012). "Woe betide those who question our water quality". Taranaki Daily News. Retrieved 11 December 2012. Taranaki has 1400 cow sheds discharging effluent into streams.
  15. ^ Harvey, Helen (11 December 2012). "Taranaki Farmers' Effluent Policy Surprises Scientist". Taranaki Daily News. Retrieved 11 December 2012. The New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society president Waikato University Professor David Hamilton said many other regional councils prosecute anyone who discharges into waterways.
  16. ^ The condition of rural water and soil in the Waikato region: risks and opportunities (PDF). 1825-0708. Environment Waikato. ISBN 978-0-9582940-0-3. Retrieved 2008-09-11.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]