ORC strife: minister to talk to chairman

Environment Minister David Parker ordered the review last term. Photo: RNZ/
Environment Minister David Parker ordered the review last term. Photo: RNZ
The Minister for the Environment is seeking advice on what to do about the Otago Regional Council and intends to talk to the council’s chairman about it directly.

Meanwhile, the council says delaying a decision about minimum flows for the Manuherikia River at this stage will not ultimately delay when they take effect.

The majority of councillors last week voted not to note staff’s preferred minimum flows for the council’s land and water regional plan, which is due for notification in 2023, over concerns about incomplete science.

They asked for more technical work to be done, including habitat modelling, and a scientific peer review of the hydrology work.

The decision led to allegations of conflicts of interest, predetermination and unnecessary delays by four councillors, who wrote to Environment Minister David Parker to express their concerns.

Cr Marian Hobbs went on to sign a petition calling for government commissioners to replace regional councillors.

Mr Parker said he would respond to the issues raised in the letter from the four councillors and officials were providing him with information and advice.

He also intended to invite council chairman Andrew Noone to outline any issues he had about the recent decision to seek more information.

He could not provide a timeline for his response.

Mr Parker had not spoken to council staff, and again declined to speculate about appointing commissioners.

Despite delay concerns, council chief executive Sarah Gardner yesterday assured that staff were committed to progressing the work programme agreed by the council and minister in 2019.

She said the land and water plan would include water take limits and minimum flows for all water bodies when it was notified at the end of 2023.

"Staff will implement council’s decision from last week, and continue to work on progressing other freshwater management units and rohe."

Mrs Gardner said the resolution passed by councillors did not specify what further science work was required by the technical advisory group (TAG) — the group which supports the regional council and Manuherekia Reference Group with science and technical advice for the Manuherikia catchment.

The TAG is made up of representatives from organisations including Fish & Game, Kai Tahu ki Otago, the Department of Conservation, Omakau Irrigation Company, Otago Water Resource Users Group (OWRUG) and the regional council.

The group does not work for the council, only the council staff in the group do.

Ms Gardner said what would be reported, and when, was yet to be confirmed, and required a discussion with the TAG.

However, it was likely staff would report back to a strategy and planning committee meeting either next month or in November, she said.

Meanwhile, Manuherikia Catchment Group chairwoman Anna Gillespie said political drama surrounding the issue was overshadowing the relief felt by a large, invested community.

She said many whose livelihoods depended on the river were relieved when councillors opted not to note minimum flows for the Manuherikia River.

Asking instead for scientific work to continue before minimum flows were noted was not only the preference of the majority of councillors, but the majority of the catchment group that represented about 700 individual irrigators, she said.

She believed that the work, including the hydrological modelling, had been rushed to meet the council’s timeframes.

Her understanding was that while minimum flows needed to be included in the plan, that was not until 2023, and "there’s no rush for that to happen now".

"That’s just the staff trying to push their own agenda. And their own timelines," Mrs Gillespie said.

Responding to that, Mrs Gardner said council staff were simply doing what councillors had asked them to.

She noted there was no legal requirement for council to note the minimum flows prior to notification of the plan in 2023, she said.

molly.houseman@odt.co.nz

Comments

The minimum flow work would have been completed years ago had it been managed properly. The use of the “Nuremberg Defence “ by staff that “we are only following orders” is a feeble excuse.

 

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