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Water everywhere – councillor update #3

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

This update is all about water and what’s happened since Minister David Parker and Judge Peter Skelton put a metaphorical bomb under ORC’s water planning processes. If you’re new to this, you’ll find the information – a press release, the Ministerial letter and the ORC response to it, and the Skelton report here. Basically, the Minister says the ORC framework for consenting wateruse (specifically the conversion of deemed mining permits to resource consents) is not fit-for-purpose and an interim plan change needs to be put in place until a new framework is sorted out. This interim plan change needs to be notified by March 30, 2020 – that is an incredibly tight timeframe at the best of times, but very tight given the high stakes around water use. The council has a tricky job, it must try and put together a plan change that will satisfy the competing interests well enough to stay out of the Environment Court. On January 7, the council held a public forum (summary below) inviting people to let it know what it would like to see included in that plan change.

As a Dunstan ward councillor for ORC, I see my role as understanding as many viewpoints as possible and critically analysing the information in front of me. As part of this, I met two groups – one on each side of the debate, though not necessarily completely in disagreement – in the first days of January. I’d like to sincerely thank these groups for taking considerable time to help me understand their perspectives and for hosting me generously. The situation we find ourselves in is fraught, and has been kicked down the road by various governments and councils. We now need to deal with it as fairly as we can for the best future outcomes for our environment and people.

Coal Creek Catchment Group

On January 5, I met members of the Coal Creek Catchment Group on site near Roxburgh and had an informative tour of their irrigation scheme and how they work collaboratively to maintain excellent water quality while meeting their irrigation needs. They’ve worked together for many years to ensure the continued health of the waterways and also to ensure that all users get the water they need on a prioritised basis. Priorities are sorted out by seasons (cherry growers need water at different times than say, the beef and sheep farmers, domestic water is always needed) and flows are monitored. This group, like many other similar groups across Otago, are finding it difficult to plan ahead given the uncertainty of the regional council’s planning framework, a government policy statement that requires improving water quality (difficult, given the incredibly high quality of this water right now) and bureaucratic assumptions that they don’t feel apply to their situations.

Their specific concerns are:

  1. The five year consent terms proposed is expensive and untenable. 5 years provides no certainty so disables investment. Farmers need clarity of process – goalpost moving is expensive and doesn’t serve anyone.

  2. There needs to be consideration of downstream users, where there is no one downstream, a different approach is needed from where a stream goes past 20 farmers. One size doesn’t fit all.

  3. The entire approach of the National Policy Statement Freshwater Management is around improving water quality, where water quality cannot be substantially improved because it is already of an extremely high quality, higher than presumed by the government, this becomes an impossible thing to do.

  4. There is a wealth of knowledge in the catchments, that isn’t well acknowledged and that doesn’t necessarily inform process, but should.

  5. The huge costs of process encourage amalgamation and corporatisation of farms – they can exclude the smaller, more local blocks and ownerships – this in itself has poorer environmental outcomes because the priority moves to profit before environment. The costs also mean consultants are the big winners in the process – at the cost of farmers.

  6. Grandfathering favours the poorest practices and disadvantages those operating best practice.

  7. Land values are impacted by irrigation permits. This leads to unintended outcomes as people put in uneconomic irrigation because it increases land value.

Tarras residents wanting high minimum flows for protection of the Lindis

On January 8, I called in at Tarras to meet some people who had requested I do so. They hadn’t known about the public forum, which concerned them, but they held much local knowledge about their catchment and had taken part in the Lindis Environment Court hearing as affected parties. They wanted to update me on their position as ORC considered what might be included in the new Water Plan.

They are concerned about the ongoing degradation they observe, particularly as a result of low flows in the Lindis, caused by the increasing irrigation happening around them. They also worry about the link between irrigation and economic development and how this negatively impacts the river and the community. Their specific concerns are:

  1. You used to be able to swim in the Lindis all summer. Now it regularly dries out in the lower reaches and sometimes even above the bridge. This drying out does not support improving river health and is a result of too much water being taken out of the river.

  2. Irrigation (whether from the Lindis or the Clutha) has increased farming land value and enabled intensification which in turn has enabled some farmers to sell part of their blocks because they no longer need such large holdings as irrigation enables intensification. Over the past decade irrigation has crept from the lower terraces, to higher ones and even to the tops. This has allowed pivots to march across the countryside. Climate change will include unreliability of supply. Pivot irrigators require absolute reliability. They may not be as efficient as they seem right now.

  3. The argument around water (Tarras scheme) has split the community, you can’t talk about it and the scars are deep.

  4. The health of the river must come first, the national policy statement reiterates this, yet farmers are still in the economic mindset despite poor health outcomes for the river.

  5. Trout have become the last man standing. Trout are holding the key to minimum flows but if the Lindis decision holds, it hinges on trout being pests, the minimum flow will be too low to support good river health.

  6. Allowing existing poor practice to continue by allowing existing use is not ok. The fact that the lower Lindis is already degraded is no reason to allow further degradation.

  7. Planning must start with the health of the rivers, not with the needs of the farmers. Minimum flow setting should start with the receiving environment then head up the tributaries.

  8. Farmers will make it work even with greatly increased minimum flows. Farmers are asking already for more than they truly need. Allowing now for current use will not incentivise good practice. And we don’t even know what farmers are truly taking.

  9. Insecure water rights has not limited or slowed investment.

  10. There has been no landuse discussion. There is no discussion around what is the best use of a litre of water?

Between these two informal meetings, we had an intense ORC meeting in Dunedin which was essentially the public forum on how we should approach the Water Use Plan Change.

The forum

Of the 22 who made 5-minute presentations, the vast majority were farmers and their consultants. This group and those who represent them are the most immediately affected group so no real surprise there. The other presenters were mostly from environmental groups. Ngai Tahu representatives also spoke.

The farmers and their representatives were not always fully aligned, but my interpretation of the key areas of thinking were:

  1. Irrigation is essential to farming in Otago.

  2. Short-term consents (5 years) would prevent investment – people wanting to upgrade infrastructure (eg to more efficient irrigation) would not have a ‘bankable’ timeframe to do it.

  3. If 5 year permits go ahead, they need to be very simple and focused and ORC should expect them to be challenged. This perspective believed alternative pathways to long term consents need to remain open. An issue was that the information needed for these short- term consents was just as costly to obtain as that for long term consents.

  4. Some thought that short-term consents (5 years only) would destroy rural NZ by preventing investment and damaging security. This view tended to also think ORC had been on the right track and should continue its existing process by rolling over consents.

  5. A huge amount of work has been done by farmers over the past decades towards the 2021 deemed permits expiry date. These farmers, particularly in priority catchments (Manuherekia, Arrow and Cardrona) have been working with affected parties, they are ready for the changeover and need the paperwork to catch up. Shifting goalposts is not ok.

  6. There were errors in the Skelton report and some of its broad assumptions. These need to be addressed.

  7. Lack of fairness as some consents are already through and many more have been lodged or are ready or almost ready to lodge.

  8. There is a battle between environmental and farming interests, the balance shouldn’t tip too far towards environmentalists.

The thinking from the environmental groups Forest and Bird, Fish and Game and DOC, plus that of some individuals representing environmental viewpoints was different.

  1. Ecosystems underpin all economic activity so must be prioritised.

  2. Concern that biodiversity values are being eroded by allocation regime. Need to address biodiversity crisis.

  3. Short-term consents should be preferred until a framework that can provide for proper waterway restoration was in place.

  4. The planning framework doesn’t reflect the national policy statements and it must.

  5. Any framework must reflect current environmental principles and keep its eye on the long term.

  6. Existing use rights favoured poor practice.

  7. Allocations should be based on sustainability principles and sinking lid on carbon. Not on existing use. Allocations will need to be reduced.

Ngai Tahu thinking was generally aligned with the environmental viewpoints but added this perspective:

  1. It’s not about the past, our interests derive from there and they need to be recognised, but we need to look to the future.

  2. In 30 years, the understanding of our values and what we need has not been achieved.

Now what?

I think all these people are committed to the same outcomes of waterway health, but what is good water health and how do we get there? Clearly we have accepted declining water health for decades, so trust is low towards those who want to continue as before – so there will be change. However, change has been happening and may not be well acknowledged yet. Also there seem to be some real issues with the Minister’s plan to improve – what to do about existing rights (see below)? Grandfathering for polluters – noone thinks this is right. What irrigation is ok, and what isn’t? What is measured and what isn’t and what should be? What are the impacts of climate change (the NIWA CC risk assessment report is here) in all this and how should they be mitigated and adapted to?

The focus of the proposed plan change is the processing of applications for water permits (including those to replace deemed permits)until the new planning framework can be adopted. The key principles that should inform this work are: a. The focus must remain on the bigger picture – the Water Plan review – the Water Permit plan change should be as concise as required to achieve a fit for purpose management regime. b. Water allocation should be based on existing water use not paper allocation. c. Consideration of potential impacts on existing water abstractors, and existing priorities in deemed permits. d. Efficiency of time and cost for both Council applicants and other parties. e. Opportunities for data gathering that will inform the Water Plan review should be pursued.

The next step is that ORC technical staff will bring to council a plan change that has considered all these various positions and the principles that must inform it.

I’ve got several concerns in all this, some of which go back to the draft NPS FM:

  1. ‘Grandfathering’ clauses that allow those who currently pollute to continue to pollute while those who’ve made solid improvements over the years may not be rewarded for doing so. There should be absolutely no right to continue polluting just because you have always done so. This stifles new and better landuse because existing use will have huge economic value and huge environmental cost. We need to find a way around this even if it means clawing back existing rights.

  2. We should be working together with our environmentalists and farmers to prioritise the health of rivers rather than arguing over ways to preserve and enhance investments. This may need some sorting out.

  3. Minimum flows are critical to river health, but we talk more about ‘allocations’.

  4. I don’t believe we should be worried about any effective moratorium on investment, but we should be concerned about the costs imposed if those lodging consents have to redo all their information 5 years down the track. This needs to be streamlined.

  5. I was concerned to hear comments such as ‘we don’t want to be sitting here in 5 years time talking about how to rebuild Otago’, without thought to the possibility of ‘sitting here in 5 years time having failed to address further degradation to the environment

I was concerned at the forum to hear comments such as ‘we don’t want to be sitting here in 5 years time talking about how to rebuild Otago’, without thought to the possibility of ‘sitting here in 5 years time having failed to address further degradation to the environment’. All power to our staff who will be working to find their way through the maze of interests in the next wee while.

#waterrights #ORC #LocalGovernment #irrigation #FreshwaterOtago

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