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Regional Council Prosecutes Itself Over Stream Degradation

Unusual proceedings in the Wellington District Court today saw the regional council prosecuting itself.

Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) was convicted and fined $90,000 for several breaches of the Resource Management Act (RMA) in what Justice Dwyer called “careless” actions that caused significant damage to the Birchville Stream in Upper Hutt.

In September 2019, work undertaken by GWRC on the decommissioned Birchville Dam resulted in the discharge of vast quantities of silt and sediment into the stream, which flows directly into the prized Hutt River trout fishery.

Birchville Stream is also a known spawning tributary, and as such is protected under the RMA.

Residents and local anglers contacted Wellington Fish & Game to report the incident which killed scores of trout and native fish.

Conducting a site visit in the aftermath, Fish & Game field staff discovered around 500m of the entire bed of the Birchville Stream was smothered in a grey sludge.

“The stream was decimated,” says Wellington Fish & Game manager Phil Teal.

“Although small scale, it’s possibly one the worst localised acts of environmental degradation we’ve witnessed for some time.

“Not only had trout, eels and bullies evidently been killed in the flush, but the thick layer of sludge left in the stream would have killed all the aquatic insects, essentially destroying the entire ecology of the stream.”

Fish & Game immediately alerted GWRC’s environment staff to the incident, and it was later discovered that the regional council was behind the damage.

It could take years for the Birchville Stream to recover, made worse by the fact that the dam reduces natural flushing flows to wash the sediment out.

Mr Teal acknowledges GWRC for promptly taking responsibility, however, he says the regional council does not appear to have learnt from their mistake.

“Despite the ruling today, the sad aspect is GWRC has applied for a resource consent for ongoing maintenance works on the Birchville Dam which could involve more flushing events.

“If GWRC was a good environmental custodian, as the community expects it to be, it would consider options to remove the dam and allowing Birchville Stream to revert to its natural state for the benefit of trout and native aquatic species.

“Instead they’re applying for a resource consent to continue the activity under a legal guise.”

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