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Suggested minimum flows for the Manuherikia River would threaten farming, orchard and winegrowing operations in Central Otago and the Otago Regional Council is being ``misleading'' and ``unrealistic'' with what it has proposed, a group of concerned primary producers says.
But the ORC has denied the criticism, saying the views of all stakeholders - including the primary sector - will be considered and no minimum flows have yet been decided.
The Otago Daily Times has been contacted by several farmers concerned about the issue, who said unrealistic minimum flows would threaten existing farming operations. Some orchardists and viticulturists have also expressed concern and said reduced flows would threaten their operations as well.
The farmers say they were shocked by the minimum flows presented at ORC workshops in Central Otago last month and the two-week timeframe provided by the ORC for feedback on the proposals was not enough.
The workshops proposed four possible minimum flows for the Manuherikia River at Alexandra, ranging from 1250 litres per sec (l/s) to 2500l/s.
But they were unachievable, Oturehua farmer and Hawkdun Idaburn Irrigation Company chairman Ken Gillespie said.
``All of the proposed options are well above what has been achieved in recent years, with careful management. The lowest proposed flow of 1250l/s might be manageable in a good year, but not in a particularly dry year. The minimum flow needs to be realistic.''
Manuherikia farmer Gary Kelliher said the ORC data did not recognise the Manuherikia catchment went so dry in drought years, and that stored water from the Falls dam augmented the Manuherikia River.
He said farmers were expecting to have a minimum flow of somewhere between 900 and 1200l/s, and the ORC was being misleading and ``provocative'' by proposing such high limits.
Manuherikia Catchment Water Strategy Group (MCWSG) chairman Allan Kane said the limits proposed by the ORC could threaten the viability of the raising of the Falls dam being investigated by the group.
If a high minimum flow was set, storage water from the dam would need to be used to maintain the minimum flow and might not be available for irrigation, Mr Kane said. If more storage was then needed, the cost of the scheme would go up, and fewer farmers might sign up for it.
The issue was discussed during the public forum of last month's Maniototo Community Board meeting.
Board member and Central Otago district councillor Stu Duncan said he was concerned the process seemed to be driven by ORC staff rather than by councillors.
``I'm quite concerned that the staff are leading the debate instead of the elected members. They're making their opinions known and that's not their job.''