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Waitaki catchment legislation introduced

3 December 2003 Media Statement

Waitaki catchment legislation introduced

Environment Minister Marian Hobbs today introduced a Bill to create an improved process to decide the use of water from the Waitaki River and catchment.

The minister announced the government’s intention to create special legislation for the Waitaki in September. The Resource Management (Waitaki Catchment) Amendment Bill will allow the many applications for water use in the catchment to be considered together and on their merits.

"The government has decided to create an improved process for making decisions about water use in the catchment, as current systems mean that the relative merits of proposals to use water in the catchment cannot be compared," said Marian Hobbs.

"The region is faced with a very large number of water use applications and no regional water plan to guide decision making. This Bill is needed to achieve equitable, expedient and transparent decisions, and to enable more strategic decisions to be made."

The Bill enables the creation of an over-arching framework for water allocation decisions in the catchment and allows the merits of all the competing water uses to be considered.

"The Bill is not about reinventing the Resource Management Act (RMA). Where the tools and processes already exist within the RMA, they are used for this Bill," Marian Hobbs said.

The Bill provides for the strategic allocation of water in the Waitaki catchment by establishing a two-stage process:

1) An independent statutory board: The Waitaki Catchment Water Allocation Board will be established to develop and approve a water allocation framework, allocating the available water among categories of competing activities. There will be opportunities for public submissions on the framework.

2) A Panel of Commissioners will be appointed, to decide resource consent applications for water use in the Waitaki catchment, assessed against the framework. Those it decides not to hear will be referred back to the councils for decision under the RMA, also against the framework.

The Bill addresses the applications for Waitaki water use the minister called-in under the RMA between September and November this year. Eight of these relate to Meridian Energy Limited's proposal to build a hydro-electricity power scheme on the Lower Waitaki, Project Aqua. The remainder relate mainly to irrigation, including several large proposed irrigation schemes.

"Collectively these changes set up an enhanced process for making decisions on applications for Waitaki water use – both current proposals and future uses," Marian Hobbs said.

WAITAKI LEGISLATION QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

What is the point of the Waitaki catchment legislation?
The legislation is to establish a process to consider the competing demands for water in the lower Waitaki River and catchment. As it stands, there is no regional water plan to guide the allocation of water, and the Resource Management Act (RMA) alone cannot provide a good mechanism for determining what is the best use for the water – irrigation, hydro electricity or enhanced in-stream protection. This legislation sets up a statutory board to devise a water allocation plan. What the water allocation framework will do is ensure environmental, social, economic and cultural issues are addressed and that the local, regional and national issues are appropriately considered in relation to all the competing allocations.

Will the water allocation plan cover the upper Waitaki as well as the lower?
Yes, but note that existing resource consents for the use of water from the upper Waitaki are recognised in the Bill.

What is the value of having a water plan in the Upper Waitaki if Meridian Energy Limited already has all the water?

The Board will determine how much, if any, water is available, and to what use it should be put. It will provide guidance in the future when consents expire as to the best use of water, and will also examine what environmental concerns need to be addressed.

What are the main applications for water from the Waitaki River?
There are several large proposed irrigation schemes applying for water from the Waitaki, as well as Project Aqua, Meridian Energy’s proposed hydro-electricity scheme. There are a number of other applications for water from the catchment.

Will the public get a say, or is this just another Clyde Dam or Lake Manapouri where the public’s concerns will be sidelined?
The public has the opportunity to submit to the Board on the water allocation framework and to the Panel on the competing applications. The government has put aside some funds to assist those wishing to make submissions.

Will the decisions of the independent statutory board and the panel of commissioners be appealable?
Yes. The statutory board's decision will be open to appeal to the High Court on points of law. Decisions by the panel of commissioners will be appealable to the Environment Court. Appellants, however, will not be able to introduce new evidence at this stage.

Is this legislation simply a way of fast-tracking Project Aqua because the government is worried about a lack of electricity generation in New Zealand.
No. Project Aqua, like all the applications, will stand or fall on its own merits under the RMA. All the applications are treated equally. This will be a more timely process, however, meaning that we will know sooner rather than later whether Project Aqua is going ahead or not. This is useful, because if Project Aqua does not go ahead, we will have to consider other options for generating electricity.

Has this legislation made it harder for Meridian Energy to build Project Aqua, and if so, how will New Zealand generate the power it needs?
With or without this legislation, Meridian's proposals have to stand or fall on their environmental merits under the Resource Management Act. Under this legislation, Meridian is being treated exactly the same as the applicants for the 66 other applications. All the applications have to meet the environmental tests under the RMA, and will be considered equally in terms of their costs and benefits.

We do need more energy, but whether Project Aqua proceeds or not must be considered in light of its environmental, social and economic effects at local as well as national level. The objective hereis an improved process. The Ministry of Economic Development has commissioned work to look at our energy situation with and without Project Aqua – that information will be presented to the Statutory Body and available for anyone to submit to the Board on.

Isn’t this legislation proof that the Resource Management Act is flawed and cannot deal with complicated projects?
The Resource Management Act does have limitations in terms of how it deals with allocation of a scarce resource. Government has recognised this limitation in prioritising water as one of its key action areas for review under the Sustainable Development Programme of Action. The RMA is well able to set environmental bottom lines and determine water availability for allocation; it is how it makes choices between applications that is highlighted by the Waitaki issue. Given the lack of a water plan and the large number of competing consents, we chose to intervene to ensure there was guidance on how water is allocated between competing uses and that the guidance was available prior to the consents being decided.

Is this legislation giving in to Meridian Energy and just an example of the government favouring state owned enterprise of private enterprise?
Meridian Energy has a lot at stake in the Waitaki catchment, but the other applicants or those with an interest in the water staying in the river must be considered too. We have been dealing with all applicants and other interests, and very importantly local councils. We have tried to come up with a process that responds to all parties including Meridian.

Will Aqua go ahead in the end? In the proposed form or a different one?
The government did not intervene in the Waitaki catchment because it wanted to ensure any outcome for Project Aqua, or other applications. The intervention is all about ensuring a fair and open process that ensures the best decisions are made about water use in the Waitaki catchment. The decision whether to grant any or all of the resource consents will be made by a panel of Commissioners operating independently.

ENDS

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