Last November, Otago Regional Council held an extraordinary meeting to hear from Professor Peter Skelton, tasked with judging whether its water planning framework was fit for purpose.
It needed to deal with “deemed permits” (historic mining privileges), expiring in October 2021, and meet the national policy statement freshwater standards.
His presentation put a bomb under the council.
The planning framework wasn’t fit for purpose and the Environment Minister wasn’t in any mood to change the law and give us more time to find solutions (why would he? we’d had 30 years already).
The council narrowly agreed to a tight schedule of plan changes to meet recommendations and ministerial requests.
In January, an ORC meeting heard the distress calls of those impacted by the proposed plan changes – mostly from water users, farmers, viticulturalists and horticulturalists, while support came from environmentalists and Kai Tahu representatives.
After that meeting, councillors split into two factions.
Seven wanted continued or extended water rights for economic development and five drove for greatly improved environmental outcomes.
In February, ORC requested the minister call in the plan changes, meaning they bypass the usual hearings process and go directly to the Environment Court.
Opportunities to make submissions remain the same, but there are no appeals.
The first plan change out of the blocks applies to expiring deemed permits, other expiring water permits and new water permits.
The first contentious issue was consent duration – a maximum of six years for people who previously had 100.
Suddenly, any development plans relying on certainty of water into the future were no longer bankable.
Plus it was an expensive process for just six years’ certainty.
The second issue was allocations.
They were to be based on what people had actually used in the past, not what they had paper rights to.
The difference here is current paper rights meant the rivers would run dry if everyone had taken what they had rights to.
Our rivers only run to the sea because, generally, water users work together to make sure everyone gets what they need and the rivers stay in reasonable health.
But clearly this needed regulatory oversight.
There’s also the issue about water being managed by those who have built their businesses on its use.
Essentially a public resource, owned by no one, it is effectively privately managed for profit.
That is intolerable for Kai Tahu and environmentalists across Otago.
This whole issue came to a head earlier in April when council was to vote on notifying the last two plan changes.
At the 11th hour, the minister winged in, calling them in.
These issues are now headed straight to Environment Court.
This didn’t stop our councillors continuing the argument and passing (7-5) a resolution effectively giving the court a wee bit of extra advice.
We’ll see how that goes.
Consider all this against the backdrop of seriously degrading and degraded waterways across New Zealand.
The blame game isn’t helpful.
All sectors – rural, urban, forestry – are responsible and have to change.
Alexa Forbes is a current Otago Regional councillor and former Queenstown Lakes District councillor
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