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Living Water progress update

In 2013 Te Hono spoke with the team from Living Water to discover what the DOC-Fonterra 10-year project was all about. Six years later we caught up to discover what has been achieved. The first interview and full background for the project can be read here.

Living Water project and scope


The Department of Conservation (DOC) and Fonterra are working together to improve the natural habitats of five key waterways in significant dairying regions around New Zealand. Quality waterways are pivotal to maintaining the healthy environments that protect native wildlife, and also underpin a sustainable dairy industry.

In 2013 DOC and Fonterra signed a 10-year, $20 million partnership agreement called Living Water. Like many of DOC’s national partnerships it involves local communities in the conservation effort, in this case including farmers, iwi, councils and environmental care groups. The partnership also invests in research and development of new habitat enhancement and farm management techniques that will be shared with the wider farming community and other conservation providers.

Living Water is working with others to co-design the solutions, trial them in the five catchments, cost them, and then plan how to take them to scale across New Zealand. They are costing all the solutions, per farm and per region, to work out how best to roll things out across New Zealand. They are also looking at the skills, capabilities, structures and signals required to support regional and national implementation of solutions and approaches.

Each catchment has its own challenges, that include loss of wetland and freshwater ecosystems, habitat degradation, low water quality due to high levels of sediment, and elevated levels of nutrients and pathogens in the water. Much of this has been caused by various productive land uses, modification of waterways and modified hydrology and drainage.

Trials are tailored to the conditions each catchment presents and includes reducing sediment loads into rivers by improving ecological resilience, restoring and reconnecting rural freshwater ecosystems and coastal environments, restoration of peat ecosystems, enhancing habitats, the transformation of agricultural drains and water networks into healthy waterways and slowing water flow to decrease contaminants entering the freshwater system.

Living Water actions and results


The project set itself five key performance areas:

  1. Achieving biodiversity and water-quality improvement

  2. Developing environmental sustainability on-farm and off-farm

  3. Fostering a close working partnership with iwi

  4. Working in partnership with stakeholders, landholders and community

  5. Sharing our story.


In 2019 the project team released a progress report, outlining performance area results from 2013-2019. The report is summarised below.

There are now 55 projects underway in the Sustainable Catchments programme, including five Living Water projects and 50 other catchments across New Zealand, trialling 31 different tools and approaches to see what can be taken to scale across the country to achieve biodiversity and improve water quality.
Fonterra - Combined Progress report.jpg

Achieving biodiversity and water quality improvement

There are now 55 projects underway in the Sustainable Catchments programme, including five Living Water projects and 50 other catchments across New Zealand, trialling 31 different tools and approaches to see what can be taken to scale across the country to achieve biodiversity and improve water quality.


  • Enhancement of 5213 hectares through protection, restoration and pest control.

  • So far seven tools have been scaled and are being applied outside the trial catchments.

Fonterra - Combined Progress report.jpg

Developing environmental sustainability on-farm and off-farm

Farm Environmental Plan (FEP) templates are available from various councils, consultants and DairyNZ to help farmers identify environmental risks, record good management practices and document actions for improvement. Living Water identified that most of the FEP templates omitted or have limited biodiversity actions.

In response to this, in 2016 they contributed to the development of an app that supported the introduction of freshwater ecosystem and biodiversity considerations into the FEP.


  • Fonterra aims to have Farm Environmental Plans in place for all 10,500 farms by 2025.

  • The app is now being used by Fonterra across the country.

  • The biodiversity assessment approach was trialled and refined before being implemented by contract ecologists on 17 North Island farms and six South Island farms. Twenty-one biodiversity assessments were completed in 2016 and 2017, and Fonterra has taken the lessons learnt from this pilot and incorporated them into the development of FEP templates.


Fostering a close working partnership with iwi


Living Water adopted a long term approach aimed at building strong relationships with mana whenua. Early engagement with mana whenua identified the loss of mana caused by a much reduced ability to exercise kaitiakitanga (guardianship) over their natural resources. Participation in the restoration of indigenous biodiversity in their rohe is one pathway to restoring kaitiakitanga. All Living Water catchments have projects that build iwi capacity and capability for fresh water improvement. They are helping to build mana whenua capacity and capability to restore kaitiakitanga, and creating opportunities to weave Mātauranga Māori into Living Water project design and delivery.


  • Four Living Water projects integrate Matauranga Māori.

  • A Māori engagement strategy is in place.


Working in partnership with stakeholders, landholders and community


  • There are now 48 partnerships in place.

  • 59% of Fonterra farmers are engaged in the Living Water catchment projects.

  • 36% of Fonterra farmers are implementing freshwater improvement actions in Living Water catchments.


Queen Elizabeth II National Trust partnership

In March 2016 Living Water signed an agreement with the Queen Elizabeth II (QEII) National Trust to formalise a collaborative partnership aimed at helping farmers and landowners legally protect areas of natural and cultural heritage. Formal partnership ended June 2018 but Living Water and the QEII Trust continue to work together informally.

The project was trialled in Northland between 2016 and 2018 with a total of three landowners covenanting 15.5 hectares of forest remnants. No further sites for QEII protection in Living Water catchments were identified through the project period. Reasons include identifying suitable sites that meet QEII criteria and a lack of landowner interest.

As work progresses at sites over the remaining years of the Living Water partnership, a range of mechanisms for legal protection may become more of a focus as landowners look for suitable options to legally protect areas that don’t meet the current criteria under QEII.

University of Canterbury partnership

In 2017 Living Water formalised a strategic partnership with the University of Canterbury to work with them on transforming agricultural drains into healthy waterways across New Zealand. This partnership will enable the research, knowledge and experience developed through the CAREX experiment to be up-scaled and applied across waterways in the five catchments.


  • Detailed planning and design underway for CAREX implementation on-farm in the Ararira-LII River catchment.

  • Scoping of other sites for drains-to-healthy waterways transformation is underway.


Sharing the Living Water story

Living Water's social media following is growing, currently at 556 followers, an increase from 466 in 2018.

In depth detail about the strategy, each project, catchments area plans, tools and progress reports can be viewed here.

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