Future of Otago water concerns all

The Manuherikia. PHOTO: VANESA DE PIETRI
The Manuherikia. PHOTO: VANESA DE PIETRI

Those observing last week's landmark Otago Regional Council vote about the handling of Central Otago water issues might feel excused from needing to understand what happened. But actually, there is no excuse.

Every person in Otago should be taking an interest in the decisions the council is making about water in our province, whether you are a farmer, fisherman or fisherwoman, or parents taking your children to swim in the river.

Dunstan councillors have been particularly concerned with how water issues are being managed, slamming their own council for a lack of communication and scientific data about Central Otago water issues so far. Their comments have been echoed by irrigators, who say economic data is also lacking, and minimum flow plan changes are being rushed by the ORC.

Last week that concern forced a milestone - with a motion from Cr Michael Laws to rethink some of the key work the ORC is doing being passed by six votes to five.

The vote means minimum flows - the amount of water that must remain in a waterway - and allocation limits - the amount that can be taken out - for the Manuherikia, Cardrona and Arrow river catchments must now be considered together, rather than separately, as the ORC had been wanting to do.

Chairman Stephen Woodhead said the move had put the ORC in an "impossible'' position in terms of meeting statutory timeframes, and the council would now need to assess the implications of Cr Laws' motion.

But Cr Laws said it was unfair for Cr Woodhead to keep claiming there was only one way to resolve water issues in Central Otago catchments.

Cr Laws said the ORC had "botched its timing, its work schedules and its legal understanding of its requirements under the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management'', and criticised the lack of expertise of ORC staff.

They are strong accusations, coming on the back of another eye-watering claim from Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan, that $50 million a year could be lost from Central Otago's economy if a historic allocation limit recently promoted anew by the ORC for the Manuherikia catchment was to take effect.

Economic analysis that would confirm that is still to come. But whatever it says, the complexity of water issues facing Central Otago today is staggering. Many might switch off rather than consider what is at stake.

But all who benefit from our water - whether a primary producer, consumer or one who uses our rivers for recreation - should be making their feelings known to the ORC.

Confusion and controversy over something so complicated is to be expected, and it is challenging finding a "middle ground'' that addresses the needs of all.

It must be remembered that irrigators are not the only voice here.

Many think Central Otago catchments are over-allocated, and environmental concerns and limits will form a key part of minimum flows and allocation limits that are set.

There is still significant work to be done, but last week's vote is a clear sign of the dissatisfaction of a majority of regional councillors with the work the council is doing around Central Otago water issues.

It is to be hoped the new water regime the council sets will be done in line with clear policy and scientific data, along with improved public communication.

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