Public meetings held in Alexandra and Omakau last week exposed mistrust of the Otago Regional Council (ORC) as consultation on the future of the Manuherikia River continues.
Five scenarios for managing minimum flows in in the river have been put forward for consultation which range from 1200 litres per second to 3000 litres per second, drew criticism at the meetings held on Thursday and Friday respectively.
Before Thursday’s Alexandra meeting, a report detailing the negative economic and employment impacts of the flow options was released by the Central Otago District Council.
In it, independent economist Benje Patterson said any changes to minimum flows “will alter farm-level practice for those reliant on irrigation, as well as have downstream influences on supply chains and household spending patterns”.
Increasing the minimum flow to 3000 litres per second would reduce irrigation reliability by 73%-74% and farm viability would be severely stressed, according to documents on the regional council’s website.
About 120 people filled the Alexandra War Memorial Hall, where Otago Regional Council policy and planning manager Anita Dawe explained river wellbeing was top priority in national freshwater management regulations, but some were sceptical.
“If you have 500 people working for an orchard, is that less important than a fish?” one woman asked.
“I disagree with that hierarchy. It is just a concept,” a man said.
“It is the law. You will have to take that argument to the minister [for the environment],” Ms Dawe replied.
The status quo flow is about 900 litres per second, which some people said was “OK” and “worked”.
Many questioned the regional council’s process.
On Friday, that scenario was repeated at the Omakau Memorial Hall, as close to 200 people attended a meeting where the presentation of the data was was questioned.
A graph that showed the impact of the water flow management scenarios on ecosystem health, mana whenua, fishing and irrigation reliability drew anger.
Manuherikia Catchment Group member Jan Manson questioned the information presented, saying only 30% of the Manuherikia was degraded.
“Is there anywhere in the document that lets the public know that?”
She asked if the general public understood flows and what a 3000 litres per second flow would look like in Alexandra. Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan summarised the general sentiment.
“People haven’t got a bloody clue what three cumecs looks like.”
He demanded that information in photo format be made available as soon as possible, including offering to provide it himself .
Submissions close on June 18. A report is due in August.