Worldwide, the cumulative effects of diffuse pollution arising from a range of human activities are diminishing the quality and ecosystem capacity of lakes, rivers, estuaries, and oceans. Devising effective ways to regulate the causes and effects of diffuse pollution is a fraught legal, political, policy, and management challenge given the difficulties in identifying and measuring who is responsible for what, where, and when. In 2011, under its Resource Management Act, 1991, the South Pacific nation of New Zealand introduced national policy to arrest diffuse pollution with a requirement for local government to institute enforceable water quality and quantity limits on all freshwater bodies. The blueprint for these national freshwater policy reforms comes from its South Island region of Canterbury. Canterbury's regional council has adopted a catchment load approach whereby an overarching limit on nutrient losses from agricultural land is calculated and linked to land use rules to control property-scale agricultural activities. With a focus on the Canterbury region, this case study examines two approaches to establishing a catchment load for diffuse nutrient pollution to link to legal provisions in its regional plan. One is based on a river's nutrient concentrations and the other relies on predictive modelling. The case study opens important questions about measuring and regulating diffuse pollution and the difficulties faced by policy-makers and regulators in linking numbers to legally binding compliance and enforcement mechanisms, e.g. how to account for lag effects when establishing ‘in-stream’ limits and how to address changes in software when relying on ‘modelled’ limits?

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