Giving 35-year permits rash

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In this week’s Protecting our Water column, Alexandra resident Graye Shattky suggests the Otago Regional Council’s practice of issuing irrigators with 35-year water permits without properly understanding the river will invite legal challenges.

The Central Otago News must be congratulated for promoting timely debate by way of its forum “Protecting Our Water”.

Photographs and word pictures from earlier years remind us of the important role the Manuherikia River has played in the development of Central Otago, and illustrate the social and recreational pleasures enjoyed by past generations of families. Contributions to the debate also highlight the reality that the Manuherikia is no longer the wild, untamed river it once was.

Plainly, a history of laissez-faire land and water management in Central Otago, intensive development and over-allocation of water for irrigation all contribute to a continuing decline of our river’s health. Consequently, there are now serious doubts about the Manuherikia’s capacity to support species and ecosystems other than ourselves, while irrigators fear for the security of their water supply.

Nationwide concerns for New Zealand’s resources and our environment have resulted in the establishment of a National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPSFM). Consequently, the Otago Regional Council (ORC) has recently adopted a “tailored” approach to freshwater management (The News, April 25), which means the Manuherikia catchment will be management unit, or “rohe”. The ORC will now facilitate a community conversation within our rohe to determine local water and environmental values that set management objectives and establish water quality and quantity limits for the Manuherikia and its tributaries.

This new policy requires a significant change of direction by the ORC, but recent comments by its chief executive, Sarah Gardner, express a determination to pursue its current and highly contentious programme of issuing replacement water permits by 2021, as required under the Resource Management Act.

This column has already uncovered passionately divergent views regarding our Manuherikia, but if common ground exists, it is that the ORC’s current process lacks robust and reliable data about our catchment’s hydrology and ecology.

By way of illustration, we note the Lindis River hearing to establish a minimum flow for the Lindis River, prior to issuing new user permits, remains unresolved, apparently because of disagreement between experts about that river’s hydrology and behaviour.

Any attempt to allocate a resource without knowing its size and capacity seems foolhardy; to issue irrigators with 35-year user permits without first understanding and allowing for the flow our river requires to restore itself and remain healthy is clearly reckless and, inevitably, invites legal challenges.

Despite evidence the ORC is “ill-prepared” and considered to “lack sufficient knowledge and capacity”, the ORC’s chief executive, mindful that the Minister for the Environment “has no appetite for extending deemed permits”, has already rejected a proposal to delay the issuing of further consents.

However, in the light of the NPSFM and the better outcomes it promises, surely the Minister, when confronted with the costs and consequences of continuing the current process and having to replace those new consents when a science-based catchment plan for our river is eventually introduced, will find granting a delay much more palatable.