Consultation on five minimum flow options for the degraded Manuherikia River begins today in Alexandra and continues tomorrow in Omakau.
The options presented by the Otago Regional Council have disappointed participants on both sides of the debate about restoring the river.
The ORC wants public feedback on the options by June 18.
Central Otago Environmental Society chairman Mike Riddell said many people would be ‘‘confused’’ and ‘‘baffled’’ by the options.
Regional councillor and Alexandra farmer Gary Kelliher said he was ‘‘incredibly disappointed’’ and the regional council and the Manuherekia Reference Group had not narrowed the ‘‘gulf-sized chasm between environmental factions and the water users within the catchment, but have wasted an awful lot of time’’.
‘‘Of course the planning and the science needs to be done in order to respond well.
‘‘But . . .much of the debate can be simplified to two differing approaches — is the river a resource to be exploited or a taonga to be revered?’’ Mr Riddell said in a statement on Monday.
Through historical anomalies, water permits intended for 19th century goldminers had been transferred to other activities, he said.
‘‘One farmer who draws irrigation from the Manuherikia is legally entitled to draw 288,000,000 litres per month or 400,000 litres per hour.
‘‘By any measure this is not sustainable,’’ Mr Riddell said.
A complicating factor was a hectare of land without irrigation might be valued at $2000 but with water rights was worth $200,000, which represented the ‘‘privatisation of water’’, he said.
The options range in increments from 1200 litres per second (option one) up to 3000 litres per second (option five).
Cr Kelliher said last week that asking for feedback on that range was ‘‘nonsensical and misleading’’, would have a devastating impact on water users, rapidly deplete stored water at Falls Dam in dry years, and not result in a fair result for all.
Normally, Cr Kelliher would not be able to comment but because of declared conflicts of interest, he will not have a decisionmaking role on the matter.
He was previously the reference group deputy chairman and had ‘‘desperately hoped’’ the council and reference group ‘‘would put more scientific fact and detail into the mix’’ and bring the groups closer together.
Mr Riddell said the society could consider supporting option five.
‘‘This is the 3000-litres-per second [minimum flow] option, which in our view is still inadequate. We would be hoping for 4000 litres per second, which is not even an option,’’ Mr Riddell said.
Otago Federated Farmers spokesman Simon Davies said he was pleased farmers now knew what they faced, but was surprised the options had been released while the regional council’s water permits plan change (plan change 7) was still before the Environment Court.
‘‘Until that is resolved, farmers are very much in noman’s land,’’ Mr Davies said.
Otago Fish and Game Council environmental officer Nigel Paragreen said it would not be simple to set minimum flows but the river’s health and wellbeing was the priority and the river needed a much greater share of water.
All five options would be carefully considered, ‘‘however, Fish & Game notes a study by the Cawthron Institute found flows below 2300 litres per second are indicative of ecological stress’’.
Forest and Bird Otago conservation manager Rick Zwaan said the group supported option five.
‘‘For far too long, the river has been severely deprived of water, with relaxed regulation by the regional council allowing private profit to be put ahead of the river’s health.’’
Changes to national freshwater policy require the regional council to place the health and wellbeing of waterbodies and freshwater ecosystems before that of people and communities.
Consultation: Alexandra Community Centre/Memorial Hall, today, 1pm-8pm (staff presentations 2pm and 7pm); Omakau Hall, tomorrow , 1pm-6pm (staff presentation 4pm).
A web page has also been set up to gather feedback online by June 18.