In New Zealand incremental degradation of our once pristine natural environment has slowly been occurring with the increase population and intensive agriculture/horticulture. In studies assessing the water quality of New Zealand streams and rivers a steady increase in nutrient levels has been observed over time. This is despite the stance taken by many Regional Councils to target point sources (typically wastewater treatment plants) and require lower, and lower loads and concentrations of nutrients discharged during consent renewal processes, since the implementation of the Resource Management Act. Confounding the issue is the significant economic cost, which will either be borne by rural contributors or ratepayers from the improvements required in management and treatment of the wastewater to achieve a measurable improvement in waterway health.
To provide a clear pathway for the improvements moving forward, the National Objective Framework (NOF’s) has been released and requires Regional Councils to set freshwater objectives and limits in their regional plans. The aim of the national framework is to ensure that the best science is applied across the country, that iwi values are understood and considered appropriately, and that freshwater objectives and limits are set in a consistent and well-targeted way.
This conflict between a number of differing contributors and the economic cost of improving water quality has been played out in other countries such as Australia and Europe, where population pressures occurred earlier than New Zealand. In Europe in the 1960s and 70s, water pollution was a significant problem. This was demonstrated by massive fish mortality, bad odours and polluted lake beds, river beds and sea beds. Due to the number of countries and contributors to each water system this problem required centralised strategy to address this.
The first wave of European water legislation began with the Surface Water Directive in 1975 and culminated in the Drinking Water Directive in 1980. Legislation focused mainly on water quality objectives for particular water types and uses, such as fishing waters, shellfish water, bathing waters and groundwater. In 1991 an emission limit value approach was introduced, which resulted in new directives on urban wastewater treatment and on the protection of waters against pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources. In 2000 the “Water Framework Directive” was adopted this requires integrated water management planning in river based on a combined approach of water quality standards and emission limit values.
This paper will look at the process the European water legislation undertook and how this compares with current measures undertaken with the introduction of the NOF’s “bottom line” limits for water quality.