Tide may be turning in water debate

Water rules face a rewrite. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Water rules face a rewrite. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Changes to water laws are happening too swiftly Murray Neilson writes.

The government is proposing to rewrite environmental law and to remove protections for freshwater. It is moving swiftly and there has been very little public discussion or media coverage of the proposals.

A recent letter, by the Minister for RMA Reform, Chris Bishop, was sent on January 31 to some organisations working on or interested in freshwaters. This letter requested feedback by February 12, in order for such to inform the new consent Bill to be introduced to Parliament in early March — an extremely short and unreasonable timeframe for feedback on such an important piece of legislation.

The Bill proposes to replace the Resource Management Act 1991 "with new resource management laws premised on the enjoyment of property rights as a guiding principle".

"The new fast-track process will be contained in a standalone Act with its own purpose statement. Locally, regionally and nationally significant infrastructure and development projects will be prioritised. The responsible minister will be able to refer projects for acceptance into the fast-track process, and the Bill will also contain a list of projects that will be first to have their approvals granted. Referred projects will go to an expert panel, which will have limited ability to decline a project once referred and will apply any necessary conditions to ensure adverse effects of the project are managed."

The government will therefore produce a list of projects that will bypass normal democratic processes, with little to no formal avenue for public or tangata whenua input, or opposition. A number of these projects are likely to be large-scale irrigation schemes, based on the coalition agreements’ commitments to increasing water storage.

A "standalone Act with its own purpose" means the government is intending that these fast-tracked projects would avoid consistency with the purpose of the Resource Management Act, which is (among other things) "safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil and ecosystems".

The standalone Act for fast-track projects is likely to have as its purpose "increasing productivity" or something related. If this is allowed to progress, projects are very likely to be given the go-ahead with little or no environmental consideration.

The government first intends to remove Te Mana o te Wai from the fast-track consents. Following that, the government intends to replace the NPS-FM 2020 (signalled in the coalition agreements) and has particularly emphasised that they will either remove or "rebalance" Te Mana o te Wai. This process is expected to take 18 to 24 months.

Te Mana o te Wai is the central decision-making framework that, along with its principles, establishes a "hierarchy of obligations" requiring councils to prioritise the health of waterways and people’s drinking water over commercial interests.

It has begun to take effect, with the reported turning down last year of a consent application to take a large volume of water, in Hawke’s Bay, on the basis of Te Mana o te Wai. The commissioners at the time noted in their decision that, in previous versions of the NPS-FM, "no strong weighting was given to the protection of freshwater values versus its use and development".

Te Mana o te Wai draws on well-established te ao Māori concepts which recognise the mana and mauri of water, and the relationship between water and tangata whenua. It refers to the vital importance of water. It requires that we first protect the health and wellbeing of water and then provide for people’s needs, before enabling other uses of water.

The government has indicated that they would like to remove or weaken the current bottom lines for contaminants in water bodies from the National Objectives Framework, on the basis that "local communities get the opportunity to customise and to have nuanced processes in place that ensure that at a community level they can be making decisions that are appropriate for that community".

Community involvement and catchment-scale management are already inherent in how the NPS-FM functions. What this narrative suggests is the desire to remove bottom lines to allow the most well-resourced in society to pressure councils for whatever level of water extraction and pollution works for their commercial interests.

The elevation of the enjoyment of property rights in resource management is very concerning as the health and wellbeing of communities and the natural environment simply cannot be protected on this basis. Resource management is applied, by necessity, across properties and public land to ensure that people and the environment avoid acute and cumulative impacts from individuals, businesses, or other agencies.

Fast-track consenting that facilitates irrigation schemes that are not subject to any resource management law, bottom lines, or public scrutiny, will undoubtedly mean further intensification of agricultural systems and land use. This will mean more pollution to water bodies and less water in waterways.

Large-scale irrigation and water storage schemes have had extreme impacts on ecosystem health and people’s drinking water sources in parts of the country, particularly Canterbury and here in Otago.

Removing or "rebalancing" Te Mana o te Wai will mean a return to the dominance of commercial interests over the public needs for a healthy environment and safe drinking water. There is ample evidence of the health of drinking water sources and even minimal ecological health considerations being overridden in favour of intensification of land use.

Without the Te Mana o te Wai legal weight given to drinking water and ecological health, commercial interests can use their resources to stay in planning processes as long as they need to achieve the outcomes they want at regional level.

— Murray Neilson is a trustee of the Clutha Fisheries Trust and a former Fish & Game councillor.