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Another letter, calling time on ORC

The letter discussed at length in my last blog has further polarised people around their views on water rights. Community groups and environmentalists lining up on one side and agriculturalists and irrigators on the other. The drums are now beating for ORC itself with Fish & Game at least ready to fire the council and bring in commissoners. Ray Grubb, a Fish & Game councillor of Wanaka clearly articulates this view in the following letter to the Otago Daily Times (not yet published). Below the letter, I cover my later discussion with Ray and what next.

The Editor ODT


The ODT today records 7 Regional Councillors writing to the Regional Council Chair asking the new Water Plan process for Otago be cancelled so that Irrigators can continue to own and use as much of our Region’s water as they wish. The letter suggests Covid 19 requires the cancellation and that excuse is a clear nonsense. What the letter really means is that a majority of the Regional Councillors, 7 of 12, have now declared a bias in favour of Irrigators. That is untenable, an abuse of their elected positions, and the letter an abuse of process.

A little background is essential. 29 Years ago the Government passed Legislation that required Deemed (Mining Rights) water permits to expire in 2021. Those permits, for every catchment I am aware of where they applied, allowed the Irrigators to take all the water. In the Manuherikia for example permits to take water totalled a ludicrous amount more than the usual flow, something like 250 times more. So effectively those who held the permits did, and still do, own all the water in the rivers. Some Irrigators will in fact tell you that. In many catchments the Irrigators trade water amongst themselves and decide at any given time how much will be left in a river. The general public has no part to play in this, nor does the Regional Council. The new Regional Water Plan is supposed to fix that.

The Regional Council, 29 years ago, realising it had to administer the changes, famously told the Irrigators “use it or lose it”. We have all seen the results; the most intensive water users, dairy farms, such as that up stream of Omakau in some of the driest low rainfall areas in NZ. Vast increases in irrigated land, massive investment in centre pivot irrigators.

The Regional Council also failed to adequately measure flows. Most catchments have around 5 years records where science tells us 20 years is essential, and you cannot issue accurate water permits without accurate records. The Council also delayed the process of replacing deemed permits with consents under the RMA and as a result we have a rushed process. The fault for the current system of temporary permits for 5 years, which most of us, Irrigators and interest groups alike, agree is unsatisfactory, can be laid squarely at the door of the Council.

It is fair to say that the majority of the groups and individuals interested in the new Water Plan process want a structured legal and fair representation of views and interests, and proper unbiased adjudication. Now that 7 of the 12 Regional Councillors have declared bias that will not be possible. The Otago Community deserves better. The only solution that presents itself is the appointment of Commissioners to replace the Council so that the Law can be properly and equitably applied.

R J Grubb 15 Jessies Crescent Wanaka 0211335570 E;

After reading this letter, I called Ray to ask if he saw any way forward from this impasse.

Ray’s view was even clearer and more strident on the phone. Apart from his experience at Fish & Game, Ray has long and broad central government experience that brings political understanding.

Ray’s big issue in the context of this discussion is water ownership and ORC’s failure to oversee it. He sees water as illegally owned by an individual lobby-group – irrigators who take what they want and leave what’s left for the public. He notes that when any group has ownership of a primary resource, they won’t give it up without a massive fight.

Ray reiterated that the 7 letter signatories have made the other 5 councillors powerless and that in this circumstance (water planning), ORC is now effectively being run by a lobby group and so can no longer perform its function under the law. He was clear that Covid-19 is no reason to delay any water planning. ORC in his view, is entirely unable to deliver a water plan when 7 people have already fixed their positions.

My view is a little different, although I fully agree that ORC has failed to deliver in the past 30 years and is set to fail again if one or more of those councillors don’t move their position. I think there is a bigger range of positions among the 7 than is made clear in the letter and that possibly all 7 are not seeing themselves as a voting block. This will become clear over time. However, what is clear now is that failure this time can’t be tolerated. All deemed permit water rights run out by October next year and cannot be renewed without a law change that the minister has ruled out. (ref: last para page 1).

Between Ray and irrigators, people are polarised and I don’t think any amount of mediation or collaboration will help bring the groups closer together. This is a job for the Environment Court or a Board of Enquiry and our decision to request the Minister to ‘call in’ these plan changes was the right one given the view that this polarisation will not be sorted out locally.

The Minister for the Environment has played his hand. Council has to do certain things in a certain period of time – this is about his wishes and the law. You can read about that background in an earlier blog. The problem is, we can’t achieve these timelines and these requirements if at least one of those seven, don’t move their positions.

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