Christchurch’s water- what’s the story?

There’s plenty of water flowing under Christchurch which is available for community use as well as sourcing the city’s spring-fed streams. This page shows the key facts around the freshwater resource that sits under the city.

Christchurch’s water supply is well understood by scientists and is sustainably managed. As a community, we are committed to protecting this precious resource from overuse or contamination.

How much water does Christchurch have?

Around 375 million cubic metres flows beneath the city each year - that’s the same as 150,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.

While we measure water in cubic metres, a lot of people think about water in litres which makes the numbers huge. If we did this then the amount of water under Christchurch is 375,000,000,000 litres.

Where is this water?

There is water everywhere beneath the city, filling the pore spaces in the gravelly sediments under the ground. There is just one interconnected aquifer under the city – not a series of separate aquifers – and water flows through the sediments.

Users extract water through bores or wells – Christchurch City Council has nearly 150 bores throughout the city which supply water to houses and businesses through a network of pipes and supporting infrastructure.

How much water flows under Christchurch each year?

The system under Christchurch is in balance: water in = water out.
Around 375 million cubic metres of water flows in each year, it is made up of:

  • 123 million cubic metres of rainfall onto the areas north and west of the city
  • 252 million cubic metres of water that ‘leaks’ from the Waimakariri River and flows via shallow aquifers towards Christchurch.

Water in graph 

How much water does Christchurch use, and what are the natural outflows?

Around 375 million cubic metres flows out of the Christchurch system - it is made up of:

  • 208 million cubic metres that enters spring-fed streams such as the Heathcote and the Avon/Otakaro and flows to the estuary and the sea.
  • 15 million cubic metres which flows underground to the sea or other springs.
  • 152 million cubic metres allocated for Christchurch (but not all is used).

Water out graph 

How much of the annual allocated water is used?

Around 152 million cubic metres is allocated on an annual basis - but not all that is allocated is used. Christchurch City Council, for instance, uses only around 70% of its allocation.

The top 20 industry users, which includes water bottling, mostly use significantly less than their allocated amount each year.

The allocations in Christchurch are:

  • 57% to Christchurch City Council for community supplies.
  • 38% allocated to industry.
  • 7% allocated for water bottling.

No more water can be allocated except for community supplies (Christchurch City Council).

Industry or water bottlers are prohibited from applying for new consents to take water – but they can trade or transfer existing usage consents or apply for a variation to an existing consent.

Water usage graph

More information

Christchurch freshwater FAQs
Is Christchurch running out of water?
No – Christchurch has plenty of water flowing through the aquifer under the city. This aquifers holds enough water to fill 150,000 Olympic sized pools (or 375 million cubic metres) and is fed by rainfall and from water that leaks from the Waimakariri River to the north of the city.
How much water does Christchurch use?
Around 152 million cubic metres are allocated for use each year – but not all of that is used. The Christchurch City Council uses around 70% of its allocated 85 million cubic metres. This ‘unused’ water stays in the environment and finds its way into Christchurch’s streams. What isn’t used ends up in the ocean.
Why are we having water restrictions?
The Christchurch City Council is encouraging residents to conserve water, so it can do the critical work necessary to upgrade the city’s wellheads. People are being asked to water lawns and gardens on alternative days only, using hand-held hoses. Unattended hoses, sprinklers or garden irrigation systems cannot be used. The restrictions will last until 31 May.
Find out more about water restrictions.
Why do we have restrictions at all?
When water use exceeds the rate at which Christchurch City Council can refill reservoirs, it may impose restrictions. This is about the rate of use rather than the amount of water available. Keeping the reservoirs full helps maintain water pressure, which is especially important for firefighting.
Are water bottlers subject to restrictions too?
No – restrictions on Christchurch residents are because of the need to keep reservoirs full. In other cases, restrictions and limitations on water takes are specified on a case-by-case basis in consent conditions. A consent holder might have to go on restriction if it is hydraulically connected to a waterway, or if the groundwater is adaptively managed.
Aren’t water bottlers going to run us dry?
No – the amount allocated for water bottlers is about 7% of the total water allocated for community and industry use each year. Under the planning rules for the Christchurch West Melton zone no-one can apply for more water for industrial use, including water bottling.
The numbers sound big, but they need to be put in context. Cloud Ocean has a consent to take 1.57 million cubic metres of water each year. This is less than 0.5 percent of the 375 million cubic metres of water that flows under Christchurch each year.
Around 60% of that either feds the city’s spring-fed streams or flows underground to the sea.
Around 40% is allocated for use by Christchurch City Council or industry – but not all of that is used.
But isn’t 1.57 billion litres of water a huge amount of water?
It sounds a lot but is less than 0.5 percent of the amount allocated for use in Christchurch. It’s 1.6 million cubic metres out of a total annual allocation of 375 million cubic metres for Christchurch.
Aren’t we giving our freshwater away?
The Government has determined that nobody owns water and right now there is no ability to prohibit the sale of water for profit, or the export of it. Environment Canterbury must apply the law as it stands.
Why have water bottlers/Cloud Ocean been given consents to take water?
Water bottling is not specifically prohibited under the Resource Management Act – which means Environment Canterbury cannot decline an application for water bottling on those grounds. The Act simply asks if an environmental impact will be more than minor, if not, consent has to be granted.
Why can’t you stop overseas companies from getting a consent to take water?
Anyone can apply for a consent, including overseas interests, there are no grounds in the Resource Management Act to decline an application on nationality.
Can water bottlers apply for new consents in Christchurch?
No – industry and water bottlers are prohibited from applying for new consents to take water. Consents to take water can only be acquired via the purchase of a property or by transferring the consent from another property. While there are conditions around these processes, provided these are met, Environment Canterbury must transfer the consent as requested.
New consents can be applied for only for community supply. The Christchurch City Council uses only 70% of its allocated 85 million cubic metres per year.
Can water bottlers apply to vary their existing consents?
Yes – water bottlers or any other consent holder can apply to vary the conditions of their consent, which is assessed by Environment Canterbury, either by staff or by an expert commissioner, taking into account the environmental effects. This is the process Cloud Ocean took to vary its consent to deepen its bore, within its existing allocation, although that was challenged in court and is now under appeal.
Why can’t ECan revoke a consent being used for water bottling?
Environment Canterbury cannot revoke a water consent based on the use of the water. However, if the consent was granted for one specific purpose (for example, irrigation) but was being used for another purpose then we would expect the consent holder to apply for a variation to their consent. If they didn’t, then that would be a matter for investigation and possible enforcement action.
Environment Canterbury can review water permits to address adverse environmental effects that were unforeseen when the consent was originally granted but cannot cancel those consents outright.
Consent may be revoked when the Council has been materially misled in the application, although this is an extremely high bar to meet.
Water consents can also be cancelled by a regional council where the council can prove they haven’t been exercised for the previous five years.
Has Environment Canterbury granted consent for a plastic bottle facility in Christchurch?
No and we have no reason to be involved in any such venture.