Court hears views on charged topic of water rights

More than 40 groups and individuals will have their say on the future of water rights in Otago, as a seven-week court hearing begins in Dunedin.

For the first time, the Environment Minister has called in proposed changes to how a regional council manages its resources.

Hundreds of historical water takes dating back to the gold rush remain in place in Otago.

When the Resource Management Act came into effect in October 1991, those holding historical permits were given 30 years, until October 1, 2021, to change to resource consents.

With expiry only six months away, more than 300 historical permits remain in effect and more than 200 holders have not even applied for a replacement consent.

The Otago Regional Council’s Plan Change 7, which is being argued in the Environment Court, attempted to provide an interim framework for water rights in the region.

Over the course of the seven weeks, the court will hear from about 40 groups or individuals, including Forest and Bird, Ana ARunanga, Fish and Game, the Otago Water Resource Users Group, the Department of Conservation, Federated Farmers, and the Ministry for the Environment.

During the first day of the hearing, the court heard from the council’s experts who provided evidence across a range of topics including, hydrology, water use and freshwater ecology, to support the council’s plan.

Lead council lawyer Philip Maw said present freshwater plans were no longer fit for purpose.

The plan change’s purpose was to move towards long-term sustainable management of water resources in Otago by establishing an interim plan to manage water permits until the new land and water regional plan was enacted, in 2025, Mr Maw said.

Two issues had to be decided by the court — whether an interim framework was needed, and if so, whether the regional council’s proposed plan was the best option, he said.

Before the hearing, council planning manager Anita Dawe said the situation was complicated and that was why the matter was now before the Environment Court.

"ORC put our hand up and acknowledged that we could have done more, sooner," she said.

"There are complexities, it’s not straightforward. There are compensation provisions in the RMA [Resource Management Act].

"It’s a really complex issue and a solution isn’t easy, and part of the reason we haven’t come up with a solution is because there hasn’t been a whole lot of clarity about what the best solution might be."

Cr Marian Hobbs said it was ultimately her request, as the former council chairwoman, to call in the plan that cost her the position as chairwoman, as "valley politics" played out at the council.

She was ousted by the other councillors and replaced with the present chairman, Andrew Noone.

"There is a group that comes together voting down that particular line of what that group of particular farmers wants," she said.

"The trouble with regional council is the community is defined in terms of very small communities of like-minded farmers."

A second regional council plan, dealing with water quality, was also called in by the minister last year and will eventually go to the Environment Court.

The first three weeks of the hearings will be held in Dunedin before being moved to Cromwell.

— Additional reporting RNZ


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