Flows in the Manuherekia, Arrow and Cardrona catchments have been awaiting incorporation into a regional water plan for 30 years. Permits for water use, issued over 150 years ago in the gold mining days, have been coming to a close and need reallocation under the Resource Management Act. Those permits have long since stopped being used for mining but were repurposed to the farming industry. Now, farmers rather than gold miners, are waiting on tenterhooks to see if their access to water is to be continued.
ORC has been wrestling with the issue for decades and making no headway, hence in May this year, Minister for the Environment, David Parker intervened by appointing Professor Skelton to investigate whether the ORC was on track to adequately perform its functions in relation to fresh water management and allocation of resources.
Yesterday, ORC approved a series of steps to remedy planning issues and respond to the recommendations made by Environment Minister David Parker last week. Those steps set out the changes needed to put a fit-for-purpose planning framework in place that complies with national policy direction. ORC Chair Marian Hobbs said the path forward was clear and achievable. “I’m pleased that we have agreed a way forward. It’s been a long time and some members of the farming community have been put out by a lack of direction. There is now a clear way forward – and we’re not having any Christmas holidays.”
The recommendations considered by the Council were approved unanimously.
The recommendations in Professor Skelton’s report concluded that, “It will be important to complete a new regional policy statement and a new land and water regional plan before undertaking the assessment of any new or replacement water consent applications.”
“While interim measures are necessary, the major focus of the Council should be the significant upgrade of the planning framework. I consider that the Minister for the Environment should recommend to the Otago Regional Council that it takes all necessary steps to develop a fit-for-purpose freshwater management planning regime.”
“A comprehensive freshwater planning framework, however, will not be in place before the deemed permits expire. I am therefore recommending that the Minister for the Environment initiates the necessary legislative process to change the date for expiry of the deemed permits ... from 1 October 2021 to 31 December 2025. This will ensure that the replacement consent applications are assessed against a robust policy framework.”
Councillor Michael Laws, who has been highly critical of the previous council’s governance around resource management, believes Minister Parker was right to intervene and that the report is a step in the right direction. He is also comfortable with the shifting deadlines.
“The deadlines don't need to be hit until 2025 to have all plans and policies in place to satisfy the NPSFM. The ORC is currently under-staffed, under-scienced, and under resourced. The new governance team are already saying ‘Let's go - hurry up.’ We will get there by 2025.”
He continued, “There were a number of problems with the ORC and its historic handling of not just deemed permits but resource consent applications in general. They were the direct result of bad senior management at the ORC and even worse governance, if that's possible. In some ways, the surprise could have been that the Minister didn't intervene earlier,” said Laws.
As Minister Parker pointed out in his May letter, the issue of a single regional plan for water has remained unresolved for 30 years, so will Skelton's report be effective?
“It's very simple. If this isn't resolved, the ORC governance team will likely be dismissed as Ecan's team was 10 years ago,” said Laws. “But that won't happen because this governance team are much more questioning, better connected with their communities, and bring in much greater governance experience. I can't stress how little local and central government experience, the 2013-2019 governance teams had.”
Local MP Jacqui Dean, however, isn’t so enthusiastic. She believes the Environment Minister has hung Otago farmers out to dry.
“In releasing the results of a four-month investigation into the Otago Regional Council and its performance around granting historic water rights, the Minister has stepped in and overridden the whole water consents allocation process.
“David Parker has effectively thrown out almost two years of consultation and hard work by both the Otago Regional Council and local farmers, as he pushes his own agenda and renders the council impotent.’
In response, Michael Laws pointed out that it was National MP and Minister Nick Smith who imposed the current National Policy Statement - Freshwater Management, not this current government. “In fact, the Skelton Report was all about reviewing the implementation of existing policy, not creating it. Perhaps if Ms Deans talked with myself or other Dunstan Ward councillors then she would be better informed. We have a job of work to do and we will get there by 2025 working with the affected communities and the wider region,” he added.