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Legal change a positive step for NZ’s braided rivers

18 January 2024

New research highlighting the vulnerability of braided rivers has contributed to a recent law change acknowledging their uniqueness.


Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) Professor Ann Brower of the School of Earth and Environment, who is the lead author of the recently published research paper, New Zealand’s braided rivers: The land the law forgot, says reform of New Zealand’s resource management legislation in recent years presented a rare opportunity to instigate change to better define and protect New Zealand’s iconic braided rivers.

“The law forgot about braided rivers: it had a way to manage land and a way to manage water, but it didn’t have a way to manage land that is both land and water at the same time. Braided rivers - with their multiple, mobile channels – are sometimes wet and sometimes dry; they simply got left out,” says Professor Brower.

“The problem with that is we have kept railroading into the space of braided rivers because the legal definition of ‘riverbed’ did not capture their special character and that was very apparent to many of us.”

Following a January 2023 UC workshop led by Professor Brower, a group of scientists, lawyers, planners, policy experts and engineers with a shared concern for the country’s braided rivers came together to find areas of scientific agreement.

Calling themselves ‘The Land the Law Forgot’, members of the cross-disciplinary group span several universities, along with NIWA, Environment Canterbury and North Canterbury Fish & Game Council. From their collaboration came a written submission on braided rivers, and meetings with both the Environment Select Committee and officials from the Ministry for the Environment.

The Natural and Built Environments Act (2023) passed into law in August 2023. As the paper notes, it is in part thanks to this group’s contributions that section 7(1) now exempts braided rivers from the common law bank-to-bank definition of the previous Resource Management Act. A new pathway has also been established for the Minister for the Environment to regulate what development is allowed or prohibited within the space of braided rivers in future.

By getting involved in legislative reform, this group has brought science and the law closer together on braided rivers. As Professor Brower observes, their paper describing the plight of braided rivers - and the action they took seeking change - has attracted a lot of attention.

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