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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 21:24 EDT

The Big Water Grab

August 24, 2008

By GORMAN, Paul

When a fight over water breaks out, the battleground is usually the Resource Management Act. But can the act contain this rush for liquid gold? PAUL GORMAN reports.

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CONSULTATION

* The public of Canterbury will soon be able to have their say on the next phase of the Canterbury Strategic Water Study, the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.

* The programme began in 2000 as a response to the severe 1998 drought and is now part of the work of the Canterbury Mayoral Forum.

* More than 200 people have been representing a range of stakeholder groups at meetings this month, with the last scheduled for Wednesday next week in Rangiora and Waimate.

* Material from those meetings on the uses and benefits of water in Canterbury, and ranking priorities, will soon be made available for the general public to comment on, ahead of public meetings early next year.

* Ashburton District Council mayor Bede O’Malley said the strategy was about the “future stewardship” of Canterbury’s water. “It’s about all of the different players – people who care about the environment, the regional economy, recreational interests and tangata whenua coming together and then working in a co-ordinated way.”

* Visit www.canterburywater.org.nz, or call freephone 0800-677- 748 for more information.

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uantity seems to be in the eye of the beholder when it comes to Canterbury’s water. Few people would argue that good-quality water is preferable to bad, but ask about water quantity and factions form immediately.

Councils, environmentalists and recreational users say the region’s precious water is either scarce or under pressure. But those who irrigate or promote irrigation believe there is plenty of water – it’s just not managed as well as it could be.

While the Canterbury Plains are almost always dry, sometimes exceptionally so, they are sliced into large chunks of arable land by a series of swiftly flowing rivers fed by many metres of high- country rain and snow.

Gravel eroded from the Southern Alps formed the Plains over the last million years and is now 1km deep in places. These gravels contain water- filled layers, or aquifers, which have some of the highest-quality water in New Zealand and are the primary source of the region’s irrigation. Aquifer recharge comes from water seeping through river beds and from surface drainage. Canterbury also has smaller rivers that rise in the foothills.

So, on the face of it, it would appear Canterbury has enough water for everyone, even in a dry year. The real challenge comes in protecting it adequately, managing it appropriately and allocating it sensibly, and that is down to the Resource Management Act (RMA). Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars have already been spent this year on Canterbury water issues. Lengthy hearings into the proposed Central Plains Water (CPW) irrigation scheme began in February and will run until next month, and the Canterbury Strategic Water Study is consulting on developing a 20-year- plus plan to manage water “fairly and sustainably”.

The $409 million CPW project proposes taking up to 40 cumecs (cubic metres per second) of water from two intakes on the Waimakariri River and one on the Rakaia River to irrigate 60,000ha of Plains farmland. It would also build a reservoir in the Waianiwaniwa Valley from which water would be distributed through a 10km tunnel and a network of canals.

The strategic water study began in 2000 after severe drought in 1998 raised concerns about whether Canterbury would run out of water. The first stage found there was adequate water to meet future needs overall, but not in individual catchments and that peak weekly demands could not be met. The study has since been run by the Canterbury Mayoral Forum, comprising the region’s mayors and council chief executives, and is currently consulting with interested groups and communities.

Also on the water front, Environment Minister Trevor Mallard last month announced a proposed national policy statement for freshwater management. A board of inquiry will meet soon to decide when submissions will be invited and hearings held.

Environment Canterbury chief executive Bryan Jenkins believes water and climate change are the region’s biggest issues and that demands for water are out of kilter with availability. “We have got to the stage where the level of allocation is at a point where we are at the sustainability limits of the resource. We have got to be looking at individual takes but also how do we get the best of the resource in terms of combining storage, surface- water withdrawal and groundwater withdrawal.

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“Canterbury is one of the driest regions in all of New Zealand, so we need more water for productive purposes than anywhere else, so the major issue is water quantity. But if you look, we are seeing land-use intensification getting to the point where in the groundwater systems, in lake systems and coastal lakes, there are water- quality issues. Managing water quantity and quality together will be crucial for the strategic water study.”

Irrigation New Zealand chief executive Terry Heiler says water from high spring river flows needs to be stored for use in summer and autumn when conditions are dry.

“The water resource overall is plentiful but we have reached the limit to meeting demands without making better use of the resource.

“With storage we can meet all community needs. We can make some gains with better management – metering, limits on volumes abstracted, best practice etc, and a lot is happening on this front now – but the future is dependent on conserving water from alpine rivers.”

North Canterbury Fish and Game Council environment officer Jason Holland says requests have been made to the Government to place a moratorium on water allocation in Canterbury to allow regional plans and science to catch up with the rapid increase in allocation over the past 10 to 15 years.

“That request has been refused. With some notable exceptions, for example the Waitaki River situation, central Government is resistant to any move away from devolution of water management.

“The problem with devolution is that water- management decisions tend to be dominated by vocal vested interests – particularly those who would derive a direct economic benefit from abstraction. This is another reason why strong direction via central Government is critical in setting environmental bottom lines.” So is the RMA up to dealing with Canterbury’s water issues?

Heiler says no and the act needs “doing over”.

Even Environment Minister Mallard says the way Canterbury’s water is managed needs improvement, but does not blame the act.

“The RMA is being successfully used in other regions with significant pressures on water resources,” Mallard says.

“Freshwater management in Canterbury could be improved in a number of ways. For example, effective water-management plans could be put in place that set appropriate environmental flows above which allocation limits need to be effectively enforced.”

Heiler says the main frustration is that the RMA was not intended to be the tool to develop the best outcomes in heavily allocated water situations.

“The main reason is that it deals with situations on a first- come, first-served basis.

“It is a lawyers’ feast. It takes too long to get decisions about investment. It favours the wealthy, including publicly owned state- owned enterprises, against the less-resourced. If an applicant has the wherewithal to take issues to highest court, many players either withdraw or do not participate. This has been a problem since day one.”

He says Government has failed to develop a strategic framework within which the Act would work and also failed to provide financial support because “a good deal of Government responsibility” was being transferred to ratepayers.

“The solution is a realistic recognition of the limited ability of some regional councils to undertake good long-term planning and that they need assistance, and a clear exposition of the nation’s objectives in making best use of our natural resources.”

Lincoln University planning and environmental management professor Ali Memon says the RMA has found water more difficult to deal with than land. “The effects-based model is easier to apply to land rather than water. Water, unlike land, is a common-pool resource, with no private ownership, multiple users, can be recycled and therefore used in perpetuity.”

Making central Government the authority to decide on water issues and allocation, effectively through the calling-in of major projects, is an option but “contrary to the spirit of the devolved water mandate” in the act.

“A better approach is for central Government to give regional councils better tools for dealing with water issues and develop the capability of regional councils by setting national standards.

“The Government could have provided a lead instead of letting each council invent the wheel for itself,” Memon says.

CPW chairman Pat Morrison does not want to be drawn on the RMA because the hearings put CPW firmly in the act’s grip.

“If it was finished I could, but I’d prefer not to now.”

However, he says he is impressed with the way the RMA hearings process is being followed for the CPW application.

“It’s a very complicated story. And it is complicated legislation. Although it has been long and expensive for us, I don’t think anyone could say it hadn’t been fair.”

National Party environment spokesman Nick Smith says the RMA is “excessively devolved” and a National government would give greater “national direction”.

“The first-in first-served approach of the RMA around water allocation is ineffective and unfair. It’s a gold-rush mentality.

“The RMA is not working well in managing diffuse pollution. The good progress New Zealand has made around reducing point-source discharges has been more than displaced by increased pollution from diffuse pollution, principally from the intensification of agriculture.”

Jenkins says the RMA is not good at managing cumulative effects. That is why the strategic water study is being carried out.

“The approach we’re taking, of going to a collaborative engagement of stakeholders and broader public information, has more value for us than just the RMA style of managing adverse effects. You need both, but the Local Government Act gives us a better framework for dealing with strategic water use in Canterbury.

“We can’t change the act – that is up to central Government and they have made it pretty clear they see it as a regional council responsibility.”

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