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Meridian Energy Ltd has been given final approval to take the water it needs from the lower Waitaki River for its proposed $900 million north bank tunnel concept power scheme, but that is certain to be appealed to the Environment Court.
Yesterday, Environment Canterbury (ECan) released a final decision by a panel of three independent commissioners on applications by Meridian for four water-only resource consents for the new power scheme.
However, the decision will be subject to any appeals to the Environment Court, which have to be lodged by January 30.
Already one environmental group which opposes the scheme - Waitaki First - has said it will appeal the decision.
Last week, the Otago Daily Times reported the consents were likely to be granted after outstanding issues over conditions, outlined in an interim decision on December 1, were settled at a two-day hearing before the commissioners in Christchurch.
Yesterday, Meridian and submitters involved in the process received final confirmation.
In their decision, the commissioners said Meridian had taken steps to address the issues they had outlined in the interim decision and consulted with other parties.
The main party was North Otago irrigators, including major irrigation companies, who were worried about the effect the power scheme would have on their historically almost 100% reliable supply of water.
Meridian agreed to ensure enough water was provided to maintain that reliability, and modified one of the conditions of the resource consents.
The commissioners said all the outstanding matters raised in the interim decision had now been covered, and they commended all parties for their co-operation in resolving those concerns.
"We are now completely satisfied that it is appropriate to grant these consents," they said.
The consents grant Meridian up to 260cumecs from Lake Waitaki, just above the Waitaki dam, for the new power scheme, leaving a variable monthly minimum flow of between 110cumecs and 150cumecs in the river between the Waitaki dam and Stonewall.
That flow did not comply with the Waitaki catchment water allocation plan's minimum flow of 150cumecs.
However, Meridian's proposal in all other respects now complied with the plan, including a change in the final conditions which provides for seven flushing flows of 450cumecs a year.
Meridian had originally proposed four, which did not comply with the plan.
Even though Meridian has its water-only consents, it has not yet decided whether to build the scheme. That will be done after an economic assessment of the scheme has been completed.
The next step is to undertake an engineering feasibility study, starting from the middle of next year, to determine the preferred scheme layout and design.
Another year has been allowed for any appeals to the Environment Court over land-use consents.
How consent was gained:
•Interim decision by Environment Canterbury granted four water-only resource consents to Meridian Energy, to divert, take, use and discharge water for a new power scheme on the lower Waitaki River, subject to resolving some issues.
•Final decision yesterday confirmed the granting of consents but with modified conditions.
•The north bank tunnel concept scheme is to take up to 260cumecs of water into a 34km tunnel between the Waitaki dam and Stonewall, with one powerhouse generating 1100GWh to 1400GWh a year.
•Commissioners: Former Environment Court judge Prof Peter Skelton (Christchurch), environmental consultant Mike Bowden (Kaiapoi) and freshwater scientist and ecologist Greg Ryder (Dunedin).
•Hearings conducted in Timaru last year and Christchurch this year.