Apr 26, 2010

Papers disclose concern over ECan water rules

The Government wanted to dilute water-conservation orders and boost irrigation in Canterbury months before the Creech investigation recommended sacking Environment Canterbury (ECan) councillors, newly released documents show.

Legislation that will see the 14 councillors replaced by Government-appointed commissioners on May 1 also gives the commissioners extra powers to make decisions on water-conservation orders (WCOs).

Papers released under the Official Information Act show that Agriculture Minister David Carter and Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) officials were considering how to take more water from Canterbury rivers six months ago.

Forest & Bird, which made the official information request, said Government claims it acted on water in response to the Wyatt Creech-led report into ECan were "obviously not true".

"The Government was looking to undermine conservation orders and have more direct control as a way to accelerate irrigation in Canterbury months prior to the Creech report findings being released," Canterbury-West Coast field officer Jen Miller said yesterday.

"A lot of people have expressed concern that the legislation was really about facilitating irrigation within Canterbury. These documents clearly show that, certainly in the Minister of Agriculture's office, that was correct. I'm satisfied that irrigation was the primary driver."

Carter said yesterday he had made it clear that accelerating more reliable irrigation was a priority.

"I have had officials working on a number of policy areas, including looking at how we can remove regulatory roadblocks to water storage while maintaining our high environmental standards," he said.

Irrigation was not the prime driver in the decision to remove the ECan councillors, Carter said.

"This decision was made reluctantly by the Government as a result of the long-standing, systemic dysfunction of ECan and its inability to deliver a robust, clear and effective framework for the management of natural resources in the Canterbury region."

A briefing paper to Carter in December last year said the Rakaia WCO set minimum flow and abstraction limits "that restrict the range of options available to resource management decision-makers and water users".

Three "key blockages to achieving the Government's objective" were the uncertain planning framework, the Rakaia WCO and the conditions on resource consents.

"An approach to unlocking irrigation's potential contribution to economic growth in Mid-Canterbury will need to address all three key blockages," the briefing said.
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A December 4 memo to Carter provided "an update on our progress in developing robust advice about how the Rakaia water-conservation order could be varied in order to facilitate irrigation development in Mid-Canterbury".

A December 21 briefing said the Rakaia River was less well-developed than the Rangitata River and "presents an opportunity for enhanced irrigation development".

The briefing said the irrigation storage capacity of Lake Coleridge was "key to unlocking the potential contribution of irrigation to economic growth within central Canterbury".

An earlier briefing said the expansion of irrigated agriculture would "contribute to the Government's economic growth agenda". It was feasible to irrigate another 580,000 hectares – much of it in Canterbury in the Rakaia and Hurunui river catchments – which would "more than double irrigated agriculture's contribution to exports".

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said the papers showed "there was never any goodwill" on the water issue.