Staff asked about lessons from Lindis River plan change

Setting a bar when users must stop taking water from a river is only an "ambulance at the bottom of the cliff", the Otago Regional Council says.

As councillors ticked off the final procedural step to make the long-awaited Lindis River plan change (plan change 5a) operative last weekend Cr Bryan Scott asked staff what had been learned through the years-long process.

His question drew a chuckle from the council table.

The process, which began in 2015 and was signed off by councillors last week, has been described as a debacle recently.

Nevertheless, policy and planning manager Anita Dawe said things were done differently now — and the policy team at the council was continually improving.

"There won’t be another Lindis, because the legislation’s changed, the framework’s changed.

"And the personnel has changed, and the process has changed," she said.

But freshwater and land team leader Tom De Pelsemaeker went further and said "minimum flow levels" were only one tool at the council’s disposal, and it now had an expanded toolbox.

"A minimum flow is an ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ and there is a whole range of other tools, and actions, and measures that can and should be applied to achieve those environmental outcomes," Mr De Pelsemaeker said.

"The Lindis kind of shows the importance of ‘allocation’ as well.

"And the importance of where takes are located.

"The plan change goes a little bit beyond what we’ve been doing in the past in terms of allocation.

"It looks at having allocation limits for specific zones within the catchment, which I think is something we learned through the plan change and that we can take forward when it comes to the land and water plan."

The amount of water flowing in a river tended to vary naturally, Mr De Pelsemaeker later explained.

This "flow variability" was an important function of rivers as it made sure that sediment, algae and food for fish was carried though the river system, and so that fish could migrate between habitats, he said.

Minimum flows ensured a certain amount of water was always maintained at a particular point in the river.

Limiting the amount of water a user could take from the river instead ensured the pattern of changes in flow levels was maintained, especially during the irrigation season, he said.

In this way those natural functions could be preserved.

Not only had there been advances in understanding how much and where water should be taken from a river while the plan change progressed, also how water could be taken had improved, he said.

The council was now also looking at ways to make "non-regulatory tools" such as the installation of fish screens incentivised in its upcoming land and water plan, he said.

The battle over the Lindis River was dubbed a scandal for the council and held up as an example of what a regional council should not do, by former chief executive Graeme Martin, in December.

It cost about $900,000 for the Lindis Catchment Group to secure a legal victory and the water its members said they needed from what was a generational asset for the Central Otago community.

The issues surrounding the Lindis River were brought to a close when the High Court dismissed an Otago Fish & Game appeal of a 2019 Environment Court decision late last year.

Fish & Game argued, unsuccessfully, that it was a mistake to consider trout a pest species when considering the fish habitat the river provided.

Late last month Cr Kate Wilson called upon chairman Andrew Noone to write to both the Lindis Catchment Group and Otago Fish & Game to ask them to meet ORC councillors to improve the understanding between the council and the advocacy groups.

The vote to do so was passed unanimously.


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