Plan change regarded as a 'fair compromise'

Up to $7 million a year could be lost to the national economy from less electricity being produced if a water allocation plan for the Waitaki River is not changed, Meridian Energy Ltd told an Environment Canterbury hearing in Oamaru yesterday.

Three commissioners resumed considering support and opposition to changing the Waitaki water allocation regional plan.

That included lowering the minimum flow from 150cumecs to between 102 and 144cumecs, depending on the month.

The original plan stipulated Meridian was also to release an additional 10 to 80cumecs, depending on the time of year, from the Waitaki Dam to maintain reliability of irrigation that had resource consents before 2006 when it was implemented.

That cannot take place until Meridian's consents are reviewed in 2025, raising concerns about reliability of irrigation before then.

However, during negotiations leading to the plan change, Meridian agreed to do that earlier if the change was approved.

Along with Ngai Tahu, Meridian has suggested higher minimum flows than in the plan change.

The Waitaki generation system was ''a critical piece of national infrastructure'', generating 19% of New Zealand's electricity supply, Meridian external relations manager Guy Waipara said.

''It is an irreplaceable and central part of the national electricity system.''

If higher minimum flows were introduced, Meridian would have to change management of electricity generation which would be reduced in both the short and long terms - in particular during winter when it was most valuable.

That would result in a national economic cost of $7 million if the 2006 plan was not changed, $2 million if the plan change was implemented, $3 million under the Meridian and Ngai Tahu proposed flows and $4 million under flows proposed by the Central South Island Fish and Game Council.

The plan change also proposed allowing Meridian to lower the level of Lake Pukaki from 518m above sea level to 515m when an electricity security of supply emergency was declared and changing the status of the hydro generation resource consents to give more certainty they would be renewed.

Landscape planner Yvonne Pfluger did not expect the alteration in flows to be sufficient to change the overall appearance or character of the river, which was already highly modified, and believed its braided appearance would be retained.

The Waitaki District Council supported the plan change, Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher describing it as a ''a fair and reasonable compromise'' which had been developed in consultation with the community.

It supported the council's vision for sustainable development of the district, in particular reliability of irrigation, and it was vital nothing was done to reduce that.

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