Council’s Agreement To Wetland Drainage Slated
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
TUESDAY 1 FEBRUARY 2000
COUNCIL’S AGREEMENT TO WETLAND DRAINAGE SLATED
Conservationists have strongly criticised the Tasman District Council for ignoring the Resource Management Act and staff advice and allowing the drainage of an important remnant wetland.
In a secret meeting just before Christmas, two Councillors agreed to the drainage of the remainder of Nguroa wetland in Golden Bay near Farewell Spit. This was contrary to the conditions of a resource consent issued by Council in 1997 which required the protection and retention of the remainder of the swamp.
“The whole sorry saga of Nguroa Swamp and way in which District Councillors have dealt with the landholders’ drainage of this wetland is one of the most flagrant breaches of the principles and procedures of the Resource Management Act which Forest and Bird has encountered,” Forest and Bird field officer, Eugenie Sage said.
“The Resource Management Act requires Councils to recognise and provide for the preservation of the natural character of wetlands and their margins as a matter of national importance. Council has ignored this and allowed pioneer style devastation of what remained of one of Golden Bay’s natural treasures,” Ms Sage said.
Ms Sage said it was a major breach of the Resource Management Act for the Council not to notify the application for public submissions after the Department of Conservation as an affected party refused to agree to the drainage of the remainder of the wetland. It was also contrary to the advice of senior planning staff.
“The loss of the remaining 30 % of Nguroa wetland means that there is little to celebrate in the Nelson region for World Wetlands Day on Wednesday 2 February,” Ms Sage said.
“There were serious defects in the way the application was dealt with. Those advocating the drainage of the swamp were given the chance to present their views to the Commissioners. Others such as the Department of Conservation, concerned residents and conservation groups have been excluded from the decision making process. They could have provided independent information about the wetland’s habitat and landscape values which was not available to the commissioners,” Ms Sage said.
“Before its partial drainage in 1997, the 35 ha flax raupo wetland was one of the largest fertile lowland freshwater wetlands in the Nelson region. It was one of the few remaining wetlands which linked coastal and lowland indigenous forest ecosystems and was ranked as “regionally outstanding” by the Department of Conservation.”
Forest and Bird has written to Tasman District Mayor Hurley and Councillors seeking answers to questions about the way in which the application to drain Nguroa wetland was dealt with by Council. The Society would also be advising the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the Ministry for the Environment of its concerns.
The Saga of Nguroa Swamp - Media Backgrounder
In December 1996, Golden Bay landholders, Peter and Marjorie Miller began draining what was previously one of the largest remaining fertile, lowland freshwater wetlands in the Nelson region without a resource consent. On 20 December 1996 Tasman District Council (TDC) issued an abatement notice under the Resource Management Act and required the Millers to apply retrospectively for a resource consent.
Despite requests from Forest and Bird and others, the Council did not notify this retrospective application so there was no opportunity for public submissions and comment. Council granted the application subject to a number of conditions on 31.10.97. These conditions were intended to mitigate some of the impacts of drainage, in particular the installation of a system of weirs to re-establish the previous swamp water levels in the 30% of the wetland which had not been cleared and requirements to preserve and fence off riparian vegetation along the main stream channel.
Following the issue of the resource consent, the landholders began a series of appeals both to Council and the Environment Court to terminate the abatement notice, modify the conditions in the resource consent, and to get a declaration that a resource consent should not have been required for draining part of the wetland. Their only success with these appeals was to achieve some minor changes to the resource consent conditions.
During the almost two years these appeals were in progress the Tasman District Council took no steps to monitor or enforce the consent or its conditions. The consent holders did not fence off the riparian margins along the main stream as the consent conditions required nor were "swamp water levels" fully reinstated in the 30% of the wetland that had not been cleared in December 1996.
In late 1999, the landholders applied to TDC for a further resource consent to drain the remainder of the Nguroa wetland. No updated assessment of environmental effects accompanied the application. Nor was the Council ( because of lack of monitoring or recent inspection in a position to report on which key conditions of the earlier consent had been fulfilled, or the state of the remnant wetland.
A basic principle of the Resource Management Act is that applications should be publicly notified unless affected parties agree and the effects of the application are minor. Senior planning staff advised the Council’s Environment and Planning Committee that the effects of the proposed drainage were more than minor. The Committee decided to proceed with the application on a non-notified basis “subject to receiving the approval of directly affected parties”.
The Council’s planning manager made it clear that the Department of Conservation was a directly affected party under the Resource Management Act. DOC’s Regional Conservator wrote to the Council in December 1999 stating that the Department was not prepared to give its approval. Despite this two councillors acting as commissioners issued a resource consent on 23 December 1999 (the last working day before the Christmas break).
By the time Forest and Bird, DoC, concerned local residents and conservation groups, and even most of the Council’s planning staff became aware the consent had been issued, the remaining 30% of Nguroa swamp had been drained and cleared.
The consent appears to have been issued on the basis of advice by an advocate for the applicants that by the end of 1999 the remnant 30% was no longer a "swamp". No independent assessment appears to have been sought.
The terms of the new consent ignored the conditions of the original 1997 consent which required protection of this part of the wetland. All reference to the need to protect riparian margins along the main stream channel was also deleted.
Nationally New Zealand has lost over 90 % of its former freshwater wetlands. Like Nguroa, many have been drained and converted to pasture. In the Tasman District the percentage of wetlands lost is believed to be higher, with only two to five per cent of the former extent of freshwater wetlands remaining.