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Submissions closed a month ago. A summary of results has been produced but not made public, and it will be another month before the Otago Regional Council meets to begin discussions about which minimum flow option will be adopted for the Manuherikia River.  Has the process been too slow? Incredibly so, according to Otago Regional Councillor Gary Kelliher, who says the process has been ‘‘a train wreck of ignoring reality’’ and will seriously divide our community.   Mary-Jo Tohill reports.
Alexandra farmer Gary Kelliher, whose field of expertise includes resolving catchment water issues onbehalf of theOtago Regional Council (ORC), has declared a conflict of interest and is not taking part in the ORC›Manuherikia decision›making process for minimum flows.
In his opinion piece published in the Otago Daily Times newspaper on June 4, two weeks before the public consultation ended, Cr Kelliher expressed his anger, disappointment and dismay ‘‘that the council to which I am elected, the environmental groups and my community are at odds yet again and are no closer together in an understanding of each other in what is an appropriate minimum flow for our precious river’’.
In reply to questions put to him by The News on Monday about when the public could expect to have access to a summary of people’s views, he reiterated his frustration.
‘‘The whole process is incredibly delayed thanks to the ORC, and the entrenched views of all of the parties involved.
‘‘The ORC role was to facilitate science for decision› making and it’s been a total failure, as the range that was consulted on is ridiculous.’’
The flow options range incrementally from 1200 litres per second (option one) up to 3000 litres per second (option five).
The upshot for farming is the higher the minimum flow, the lower the reliability for irrigation, a reduction by 73%-74%.
‘‘I suspect there is a determination among the ORC and the enviro groups that no matter what science says, they want a high flow, and irrespective of what impact that will have on financial viability.’’
He said the water users were confident that the 1100 litres per second proposed at the Alexandra Holiday Park met the requirements of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020 (NPSFM), which provides for the health of the river, and this position was defensible in the environment court and to water commissioners.
It is understood that councillors will meet on August 12 to discuss the Manuherikia.
In an email discussion between Cr Kelliher and Letts Gully resident Nigel Murray, shared with The News, Mr Murray said the delay in resolution ‘‘is pushing up against the ecological limits of the Manuherikia and her catchment tributaries, let alone the timeline for the unresolved 30›year transition away from over›allocated water rights’’.
He urged Cr Kelliher to press the ORC executive to release the information as soon as possible.
In a reply in a separate communication with The News, Cr Kelliher disagreed, ‘‘as the health of the river has been improving for a number of years, and will continue to improve’’.
It was suggested to The News that some groups were already privy to a summary of results.
The Manuherekia Reference Group (MRG), which was formed to have input into the ORC Manuherekia Rohe plan for the river, will meet on Monday to discuss the recent minimum flow consultation.
Former MRG member and Central Otago Environmental Society (COES) chairman Mike Riddell said his group had been given a preliminary look at the actual responses made by individuals and their comments, and that these showed a division between minimum and maximum flow supporters.
The regional council document regarding the five flow options states at 3000 litres per second, there are clear benefits for ecosystem health, swimming, mahika kai and mana whenua values and fishing, but irrigation reliability, as previously mentioned, would be reduced and farm viability severely stressed.
Cr Kelliher said he would be ‘‘very surprised and concerned if there is a group that is privy to detail that is not available to everyone else, and decision› makers’’.
‘‘Although maybe I shouldn’t be, given the process over the past couple of years has been a train wreck of ignoring reality.’’
The ORC and environmental groups were seriously dividing the community, but some people were seeing ‘‘past the misinformation, and rhetoric nonsense’’.
‘‘Any recommendation of flows that are unachievable, or not supported by suitable science, will end any future goodwill and ensure the battle lines are well and truly drawn.
‘‘Our community deserves better than this and has done for some time.’’
An Omakau farming couple have preempted the decision› making regarding Manuherikia minimum flows by increasing their capacity to store water.
In the past four years, Ben and Vanessa Hore, of Blackstone Hill Station, have built a pair of 14ha›sized irrigation ponds, which are quite possibly the biggest the district has seen.
Two years ago, the proposed $60 million›$70 million Falls Dam irrigation project was put on hold because of uncertainty over broader water issues facing Central Otago.
The ponds, which are supplied with water by the Blackstone Irrigation Company scheme, were an exercise in future-proofing the 101-year-old farm and although water conservation and quality were touchy subjects, the Hores were adamant this was the way forward.
‘‘We’ve had ponds, but nothing that scale, and yep, they’re pretty big,’’ Mr Hore said.
‘‘To justify having the spray irrigation infrastructure we had to ensure that we could use it when we need it but if we have enough stored, we can use it,’’ Mrs Hore said.
Mr Hore agreed.
‘‘Typically, when you need it, you don’t have it, so you’ve got to store it. It’s really more in the particularly dry years.’’
They saw irrigation ponds on their scale as a future trend.
‘‘There will be more people who will put in ponds for farm storage.
‘‘You’ve got a lot more pivots, they’re under a lot more pressure, and there’s a lot more issues going on with minimum flows.’’
The first pond built had been in operation for about four years, the second in use for about a year.
‘We’ve only got one bulldozer, so it took a while,’’ Mr Hore said.
‘‘We killed a digger — the ponds ate a few bits of machinery.’’
They are also used for swimming and recreation and are being left to naturalise on their own.