A local bill is being pursued in Parliament to allow a proposed dam to flood part of the Richmond Forest Park. Photo: Tasman District Council

Local bills are circumventing environmental protections, a lobby group warns. David Williams reports.

More large-scale dams and other environmentally damaging proposals on public conservation land might get approval through a parliamentary back door, Forest & Bird says.

Nelson MP Nick Smith introduced the Tasman District Council (Waimea Water Augmentation Scheme) Bill to Parliament earlier this month. The National Party veteran, a former Conservation Minister, says the bill deals with a “relatively small” issue of giving the council the right to inundate 9.7 hectares of public conservation land the Mount Richmond Forest Park for the Lee Valley dam and reservoir (known locally as the Waimea Community Dam), which would cover 87.5ha.

The bill’s likely to pass. Environment Minister David Parker has indicated Labour will support the bill, subject to conditions.

But environmental lobby group Forest & Bird warns the bill might set a “moral” precedent, allowing a developmental back door for schemes, particularly those for water storage schemes, like the Waimea Dam, that are contrary to the Conservation Act.

“It just seems that everybody’s looking at ways that they can get around the Conservation Act for water storage schemes,” Forest & Bird solicitor Sally Gepp, of Nelson, says.

“The really concerning thing is, if this goes through then why just this one? Why not any other one? So all the other potentially damaging impacts on conservation land, which are not allowed under the Conservation Act, could potentially be facilitated by local bills. All you need is a willing local MP, who can put it forward and then get the votes in Parliament.”

Resurrection of Ruataniwha?

There’s talk of a local bill being used to bypass Conservation Act requirements for a revised Ruataniwha Dam proposal, in the central Hawke’s Bay. Gepp says there are plans for large-scale irrigation dams which would inundate conservation land in Canterbury and the Wairarapa.

In April, National MP Maureen Pugh introduced a local bill, on behalf of the West Coast Regional Council, to enable the harvesting of “windblown timber” from conservation land.

Concerns over the Lee Valley dam have fallen along political lines. Labour’s for it. Its Nelson candidate Rachel Boyack said before last year’s election the project stacked up economically and environmentally. New Zealand First’s Shane Jones didn’t respond with comment. But he seemed supportive yesterday, telling the Nelson Mail that Tasman district councillors are misguided to think there is a better alternative than the Waimea Dam to tackle the district’s water problems.

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said last week the dam was “think big” with significant downside risks. Meanwhile, her fellow MP, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, says Tasman’s council is entitled to promote a local bill. “Having Parliament consider specific legislation to override the requirements of the Conservation Act for a particular project is an open and transparent process.”

Political pragmatism

National MP Smith doesn’t accept that local bills are an environmental back door. He says parliamentarians sometimes make pragmatic decisions to alter the “huge area” of public land managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC). “It is a case of horses for courses. If such a community dam proposal was put forward in a precious area, like the Abel Tasman National Park, I would be firmly opposed. We need to have an element of pragmatism in our approach … particularly when there are very real environmental gains.”

Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne also rejects the tag of a local bill being an environmental back door. “It’s actually the process that’s been identified in talking with the department.”

DOC’s acting director of Northern South Island Nic John confirms DOC wrote to the Tasman council in May stating it wasn’t opposed, in principle, to a local bill. He says the land is deemed conservation park and contains riverbed and adjoining land with “some moderate to high conservation values”.

The department was a member of the Waimea water augmentation committee, established in 2003, and was consulted over consents for the dam. Indeed, the department was party to an Environment Court appeal settled at mediation.

Forest & Bird took the appeal. Gepp says there was a risk the Environment Court might throw out an objection to the dam project, if it was judged the economic benefits outweighed the environmental effects. “Given the significant financial hurdles that the dam would have to overcome, plus the issues with getting access to the conservation land, it was not the best use of our limited resources to invest in a major Environment Court hearing on this dam.”

Conditions on the consents include a package of biodiversity compensation measures, including predator control for other areas of habitat for Wainuia nasuta snails. Under the mediated agreement, nationally rare plant shovel mint (Scutellaria novaezelandiae) has to be successfully re-established elsewhere and a biodiversity compensation fund would also be established.

Legal pitfalls of disposal

The previous Government thought the Tasman council could use the Public Works Act to get approval to flood part of the Mount Richmond Forest Park. But DOC changed its position in light of the Ruatiniwha Dam decision, torpedoed by the Supreme Court over a proposed landswap with DOC. That decision also made it clear DOC should not try and dispose of land that has conservation values. The conservation land earmarked for flooding in the Waimea Dam project has “conservation park” status.

Irrigation New Zealand chief executive Andrew Curtis says given what happened with the Ruataniwha dam proposal, it’s nigh impossible for some “community infrastructure” to go ahead. Local bills are a democratic pathway that can be used, he says.

“It’s a last resort really. I don’t think it’s something that everybody’s going to be going, ‘Yay, we’ve got the solution to everything’. Ultimately where irrigators want to get to is it’s accepted by the community and the community wants it to go ahead.”

National MP Smith says the biggest challenge for the Waimea Basin community is how the dam might be funded. “There’s a fair amount of tension between the council, government and Waimea Irrigation Ltd over how that might be achieved. My job is to remove this roadblock of the land access.”

Smith expects the bill to have its first reading on September 5, after which it would be referred to the governance and administration select committee. It’s Smith’s intention to refer it for public submissions and for the select committee to hold hearings in Nelson.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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