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A group of Upper Clutha farmers are not ruling out legal action to make the Otago Regional Council "adhere to its responsibilities", a group representative says.
The Upper Clutha Farmers Group believes that because Contact Energy has been continually operating Lake Hawea lake levels close to its allowable minimum operating level of 338m above sea level, the lake levels have continually dropped and many local bores have run dry.
In a statement, the group's spokesman, Queenstown lawyer Michael Walker, said it believed that at a meeting at the Lake Hawea Community Centre on October 13, representatives from the group, the regional council, the Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) and Contact Energy were "purposely misled" by regional council chairman Stephen Woodhead.
Mr Walker said Mr Woodhead assured the group and all other parties that the regional council had, in May of this year, reviewed the Contact Energy consent to dam the waters of Lake Hawea, as required by the conditions of that consent.
Following the meeting the group asked the regional council for all information and material relating to the alleged consent review.
"It now transpires the [regional council] review did not take place and the chairman had clearly been wrong and misled the meeting on October 13," Mr Walker said.
"The [regional council] has a statutory responsibility to not only monitor the activities authorised by resource consents, but to manage the resource in question, namely water for the community and all users and they have clearly not done this."
Information presented by Contact Energy at the meeting about the continually reducing water flows into Lake Hawea over the past 17 years appeared to be "completely inconsistent" with the regional council's decision not to review the consent, which would have reduced the effects Contact's operation had had on the environment and other water users, he said.
Subsequent to the meeting Mr Walker said the farmers' group was advised by the regional council that an audit of Contact Energy's consent conditions would be done by council staff.
However, the group, believed it would be more appropriate and transparent for an independent, qualified person to do the review.
"The [farmers' group] were particularly concerned with comments that Stephen Woodhead made . . . on the one hand [the regional council] was saying that it did not have enough information about the water dynamics and was not able to make decisions relating to it, yet on the other hand stating that it had in fact reviewed the consent in May 2017 [which had not occurred] and that there were no issues."
In a statement responding to the claims made by the farmers' group, Mr Woodhead said it was not the regional council's intention to mislead or misrepresent.
"We believe that this issue may have been the result of a misunderstanding."
It was aware of local concerns about the effect of fluctuations in the levels of Lake Hawea on groundwater in the area, he said.
"To this end, we had a positive and constructive conversation with the Hawea Irrigation Company at their annual general meeting [last week]."
The regional council detailed its work programme in the area, which began in August this year and would continue into 2018-19.
The programme included drilling and installation of two groundwater monitoring bores to record continuous groundwater levels, charting Hawea river gains and losses by taking measurements along the river four times a year and doing two groundwater level and water quality surveys.
"We will use this information to build a next-generation computer model of local aquifers, and ultimately help determine water allocation limits and aquifer restriction levels," Mr Woodhead said.
"The benefits of this work will be substantial and provide everyone in the wider community who relies on groundwater for commercial and domestic use with a greater understanding of the factors that influence aquifer levels."
Mr Walker said the group was considering what further steps it could take to have the ORC adhere to its statutory responsibilities.
"It has not dismissed the possibility of legal action if required," he said.