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Twelve resource consent applications to use water from the lower Waitaki River for irrigation have been granted by Environment Canterbury, including three for a new irrigation scheme in the drought-prone Waihao Downs area south of Waimate.
Waihao Downs Irrigation has been given approval to take up to 3.06 cumecs of water from the lower Waitaki River, which would irrigate up to 6800ha on 51 farms. A pumphouse with up to 10 pumps would lift water 120m to be distributed under pressure by pipes for spray irrigation.
The other applications were from individual farmers, part of the Mid River New Applicants' Group formed to assist farmers between Black Point and the Waitaki dam with consent applications to take water.
Many have gone through a drawn-out process, called in by the Government in 2004 in the wake of Meridian's Project Aqua power scheme, which was eventually cancelled.
Hearings for the new consents were conducted in Oamaru between August and October in 2008 by an Environment Canterbury (ECan) panel made up of former Environment Court judge Prof Peter Skelton (Christchurch), environmental consultant Mike Bowden (Kaiapoi) and freshwater scientist and ecologist Greg Ryder (Dunedin).
The panel considered 52 applications for water from the lower river between the dam and the sea and, with the latest decisions, have now granted 22 of those 52.
In addition, it has also granted one resource consent for up to 20.5 cumecs of water from the lower river for the $150 million to $200 million Hunter Downs irrigation scheme of up to 40,000ha in the Waimate and Timaru districts, proposed by Meridian Energy Ltd and the South Canterbury Irrigation Trust, and four consents for Meridian's $1 billion north bank tunnel concept hydro electricity scheme.
All the new consents granted this week, including for the Waihao Downs scheme, follow those granted for the Hunter Downs.
All have to start reducing the water they take when the lower Waitaki River reaches 175.5 cumecs and stop taking water at 152 cumecs, in line with the Waitaki catchment water allocation regional plan prepared in 2005.
That has answered the biggest issue with granting the consents - the debate between applicants, who wanted a cut-off at 100 cumecs, and opposition groups and individuals who opposed the applicants' proposal to take water below the minimum of 150 cumecs set in the allocation plan.
Waihao Downs proposes to take water either from the Morven-Glenavy-Ikawai scheme's intake or a new intake below Pub Rd at Ikawai.
In its decision, the panel said the Waihao River catchment was already under stress from water demand and was unlikely to be available for further development.
During the hearing, it heard "a good deal of evidence" from farmers and others, including the Waimate District Council, supporting the scheme.
"This evidence was influential in our decision . . . ," the panel said.
While acknowledging uncertainty over the effect of more irrigation in the Waihao Downs area on water quality in the catchment, the panel said it had to weigh these adverse effects against potential positive effects of the scheme.
There was a strong reliance on scheme and farm management plans being implemented and adhered to to reduce the adverse effects.
There were significant socio-economic benefits from "a reliable irrigation scheme" in this area, but very limited opportunity to use water from within the Waihao catchment.
The lower Waitaki River was an obvious potential and available water source.
It granted a consent for a term of 35 years.
The other consents were mainly for to renew existing consents or put in new irrigation.