Calls for ORC to resist govt pressure

Tom Kay. Photo: supplied
Tom Kay. Photo: supplied
Environmental groups are calling on Otago regional councillors to resist government pressure and push ahead with the council’s nearly completed land and water plan.

Federated Farmers, meanwhile, says a short delay in notifying the plan could stop the situation from getting "messy really quickly".

The Otago Regional Council has found itself at odds with the government as ministers urge the council to abandon a June 30 notification date for its plan to manage the region’s natural resources.

Government ministers, including Environment Minister Penny Simmonds, have foreshadowed significant changes to the national policy statement for freshwater management, which underpins the council’s plan.

Councillors are due to discuss advice from the government at a council meeting in Oamaru on Wednesday and there appears to be considerable division around the council table about the way forward as well.

Forest & Bird freshwater advocate Tom Kay said the council had an obligation to the community to protect rivers, lakes, wetlands and drinking water "and this plan is going to help do that".

The 2017 election was, in part, fought over swimmable rivers and the present government’s approach to repealing and reviewing the national policy statement for freshwater was "naive", Mr Kay said.

"It totally disregards the value that the public put on water.

"This was what people wanted, because everyone wanted to swim in the rivers, everyone knew that that was something we were starting to lose."

Despite the clear direction given at that election, there had hardly been a chance to implement the resulting freshwater policies, he said.

Decision-makers were nevertheless starting to see there was some importance in "putting water first" and communities had to think about the capacity of the ecosystem to handle what was proposed "to limit exploitation".

"And that is seen as a problem by this new government," he said.

Otago Fish & Game environmental officer Nigel Paragreen said central government’s call to delay work on the land and water plan were creating uncertainty.

There were short-term consents for water abstraction for some water users put in place with a new land and water plan in mind.

These would start to expire about 2028 and the council needed a plan to deal with them.

"A delay will mean environmental issues are left in limbo and higher costs to resolve them," Mr Paragreen said.

Green list MP Scott Willis, who once ran for a seat at the council table, said to abandon the plan now, after five-plus years of work on it, "would be an insult to the public service and allow the war on nature to continue".

"We finally elect a progressive regional council, or a largely progressive regional council ... and then we get the government we’ve got, the three-headed taniwha.

"This is overstepping and over-riding local interests."

Federated Farmers North Otago president Myfanwy Alexander said the council was between a rock and a hard place - but her organisation was supporting a short delay.

"We’d like them to take a minute - a bit of time - just to see what’s coming through from the national government.

"I’m just really worried that it’s going to get messy really quickly.

"It means uncertainty for farmers, it means legal battles ... it’s just going to lead to uncertainty really."

Further, farm plans were now being rolled out across the region which, unlike the broad-brush land and water plan, allowed for farm-specific improvements to freshwater.

"Because this isn’t just for 10 months, 12 months, two or three years, this land and water plan is supposed to last for quite a while.

"It seems like we’re rushing just to tick a box.

"If we are really focused on results, which I think everyone is, I think we’ve already got the tools there and then we make sure the land and water plan backs that up."