Local communities will be given the option of using collaborative processes to determine regional freshwater allocation and policies, in the first decisions to emerge from a five-year process to reform the management of freshwater resources.
Environment Minister Amy Adams announced the changes, which were welcomed by the executive director of the Environmental Defence Society, Gary Taylor, for their consistency with the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum - a collaborative process that brought together traditional foes to reach consensus on a way to approach freshwater management.
Ms Adams announced the decisions, which will be included in further amendments to the Resource Management Act later this year at the Valuing Nature conference in Wellington. It will consider ways to manage competing claims of economic development and environmental management.
"Currently, council staff draft a plan then consult on it - often described as a 'decide, announce, defend' approach - which is then followed, potentially, by years of litigation," she said of the current freshwater policy-making process.
"Instead, we will provide an option where people and organisations drawn from the community can work together, reflecting their diverse values in setting objectives and limits for their local freshwater resources.
"We will not be compelling councils to choose a collaborative approach. Regions will still be able to use the existing ... planning process if they choose. However, feedback on our proposals for freshwater reform showed there is significant support for collaboration."
The government also supported the LAWF recommendation to limit appeal rights to points of law where a collaborative process was used - a decision Green Party environment and water spokesperson Eugenie Sage says would water down environmental protections.
"Collaboration and community input into freshwater planning do not depend on stripping back New Zealanders' appeal rights and ability to access the Environment Court," she said.
However, Mr Taylor said that "while on the face of it, people are concerned about appeals to the Environment Court, in this instance, it's kosher".
Maori and iwi
Also announced and in line with the LAWF recommendations was the intention to develop a National Objectives Framework and processes to ensure Maori and iwi views are "explicitly considered before any planning decisions on freshwater are made".
"We accept that the current regime is not working as intended for Maori, and that while final decisions are reserved for council, those decisions must be properly informed by all relevant information, including iwi views," Ms Adams says.
She also announced the government would not proceed with proposed changes to Water Conservation Orders, which had alarmed environmentalists, who feared it would undermine existing protections.
There was no timetable given for further progress on the freshwater reform programme, but in most respects the decisions suggest the government has taken a less cautious approach than LAWF members had feared.
"The National Objectives Framework is a work in progress," Mr Taylor says. "I would really emphasise how important it is to get that right. With a weak framework, the whole edifice could come tumbling down."
Legislation will be introduced this year to facilitate introduction of the NOF, Ms Adams says.