Why LAWA matters

Jo Bailey
January 2014

Section summary

  • Water quality is a problem in New Zealand, and is becoming increasingly prominent.
  • There is a gap between public perception and reality, but New Zealanders still rate lakes and rivers as the most pressing environmental issue nationally.
  • In a 2011 report the Auditor General recommended greater cross-sector collaboration, a holistic policy and greater emphasis on monitoring.
  • LAWA may be a regional council response to this report.

In much of my work, I actively seek out ‘win-wins' for the economy and the environment. But in this case, New Zealand does face a classic economy versus environment dilemma.

Dr Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (Wright, 2013, p.7)

Freshwater problems and opportunities

Water quality is an increasingly prominent issue in New Zealand. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has recently released a report highlighting the fact that increased dairy production undoubtedly means more freshwater pollution; controversy over the Hawke’s Bay Ruataniwha Dam project rages; last summer’s drought meant hosepipe bans for the public and reduced profit for farmers; and toxic algae in rivers has killed over sixty dogs since 2005. New Zealanders need tools to be able to make informed choices about how freshwater resources should be used.

Perception-reality gap

 Water quality decreased over the 1998 to 2007

(Ballantine, Booker, Unwin, & Snelder, 2010, p.7)


Three quarters of New Zealanders think that rivers and lakes are adequately managed

(Hughey, Kerr, & Cullen, 2010, p.23)

Though there is plenty of evidence that New Zealand has a freshwater pollution problem, Hughey, Kerr, & Cullen (2010, p.23) found that most New Zealanders think that our lakes and rivers are adequately managed. However, when the survey group was asked to choose the most important environmental issue facing New Zealand, water pollution and water-related issues ranked highest. Perhaps these findings suggest there is a nascent public consciousness of water quality issues. Or perhaps they simply underline the fact that the picture is confusing.

Partnership roles

Regional councils are the key driver behind LAWA. In 2011, regional councils’ role in freshwater management was assessed by the Auditor General, who made the following recommendations:

collaboration at all levels – central and local government, across local government, with the dairy sector, stakeholders, iwi, farmers, and communities; sharing knowledge and information – especially easy availability of nationally  comparable, high-quality, scientific data and research; a holistic approach to managing freshwater that integrates land use, freshwater quality management, and the effects on the coastal marine environment; and strong links between freshwater management planning and using scientific monitoring to measure the effectiveness of the policies being implemented.

(Provost, 2011)

A response?

Open Lab’s original brief sought to address some similar themes:

Regional Councils and the Cawthron Institute, with the help of the Tindall Foundation, wish to create a credible and informative website providing robust environmental information on land and water resources. The website, aimed at the general public, will build on the existing Land and Water New Zealand (LAWNZ) website, utilising and expanding on the considerable water quality data gathered, stored and presented on the site by Regional Councils.

(LAWNZ (Land and Water New Zealand), 2012).

Clearly, there are themes raised by the Auditor General that the LAWA brief seeks to address. This is laudable, but raises the issue, to what degree could LAWA be considered a box-ticking exercise to point to and say 'something is being done'? This is a thought I will return to as I describe the LAWA journey.

Next: Theory, method and process