A Canterbury farmer taken to court for destroying a rare, native shrub has a new water consent, after a hearing notable for the absence of the Department of Conservation.

Brent Thomas’ company Wongan Hills applied for expanded water takes, transferring more than 200,000 cubic metres of groundwater allocations held by two other companies, to help irrigate just over a fifth of his 967ha beef, sheep and cropping farm.

DoC was one of a handful of organisations notified about the consent application, because the irrigation area neighbours a scientific reserve. (The others notified by the regional council, ECan, were Te Rūnanga o Ngai Tahu, and the nearby Taumutu and Wairewa Rūnanga. The rūnanga initially made a submission but withdrew it before the hearing. A cultural impact assessment is required as a consent condition.)

But the department, which has a legal duty to advocate for conservation, didn’t make a submission or attend the hearing.

That decision was made – without technical advice, including from its planning team – by Andy Thompson, operations manager of DoC’s Christchurch-based Mahaanui office.

In an emailed statement, Thompson says the department already received advice from its planning and ecological experts during negotiations of a side agreement on consent conditions with the Kaitorete farmer. DoC felt its concerns were being actively addressed, he says.

“We put considerable effort into proactively working with the applicant during the pre-application process, to ensure that, given the circumstances, the best outcomes for conservation were reached.”

Thomas says: “I have no comment to add.”

ECan advocated alone

Side negotiations between DoC and Wongan Hills caused internal friction at the department. In terse emails, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, DoC staff told Thompson the negotiations would “seriously undermine” ECan, and could put the department at “serious reputational risk”.

At December’s consent hearing disappointed ECan staff were alone in pushing for stricter conditions – and failed.

The consent decision, issued last month, said irrigation buffer areas suggested by the farming company “are the same as those on the existing consent and have been agreed by DoC”. Hearing commissioner Emma Christmas mentioned the monitoring programme had been agreed with DoC. “I do not consider from the evidence received that there is reason to amend it.”

Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor says he’s surprised DoC wasn’t at the water-take hearing and he’ll be seeking an explanation. “It seems analogous to the concerns that we’ve expressed elsewhere, namely in the Mackenzie Country, about edge effects and the wider ecological and landscape values that need to be factored into freshwater allocations.”

Forest & Bird’s Canterbury/West Coast regional manager Nicky Snoyink says if DoC is notified of a consent, managers should get advice from technical science staff about whether a submission should be made.

Why is this important?

The Thomas farm sits on Kaitorete Spit, an ecologically sensitive strip of land south of Christchurch, between Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere and the Pacific Ocean, which is highly significant to Māori. The neighbouring scientific reserve includes dune land which supports rare and threatened plants, lizards and invertebrates, and has high ecological values.

Kaitorete is a national stronghold for the nationally endangered shrub tororaro (Muehlenbeckia astonii). However, two years ago Forest & Bird revealed Thomas had killed almost a third of the national population, by spraying paddocks with herbicide and sowing oats.

The conservation lobby group took court action but the case is adjourned while the parties, including DoC, negotiate the potential purchase of some of the farm. (Snoyink had no update on negotiations.)

In the interim, and despite the court action in the background, the Christchurch City Council issued Wongan Hills with a certificate of compliance allowing certain farm activities on certain paddocks.

(Last year, Thomas, and his company Willesden Farms, were fined for environmental offences and issued abatement notices for allowing cattle in a stream and wetland.)

Thompson, the DoC manager, argues negotiations with Thomas were fruitful. The farmer agreed to increase buffers between irrigated farmland and nearby public conservation land, including planting native species along the buffer. He also agreed to monitoring on conservation land to check for irrigation effects.

“DoC botanical experts and its RMA [resource management] specialists reviewed likely consent conditions and obtained agreement from Wongan Hills Ltd that the company would apply to have these new and improved conditions applied to their previous consent as well – so there was one set of good standard conditions,” Thompson said.

Imbroglio over edge effects

At December’s consent hearing, Wongan Hills’ lawyer, Ben Williams, was irritated at what he claimed was ECan’s attempt to relitigate the buffer areas already set in an existing consent. However, ECan’s science team leader Dr Philip Grove suggested the mitigation measures didn’t go far enough.

The central issue considered at the hearing was edge effects – the effect on nearby vegetation from irrigation, from the likes of drifting spray, and other farming practices, like fertiliser and herbicide use.

Unpublished research from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research found edge effects extend at least 200m from irrigated areas at some sites in the Mackenzie Basin. Adding moisture to naturally dry environments can lead to an invasion of open, dry habitats by exotic plant species.

Grove, the ECan ecologist, clashed with Wongan Hills’ expert Dr Graham Ussher about the relevance of various studies. Ussher said a 50m buffer with the reserve was precautionary, and the 100m proposed by ECan was “not defensible or appropriate”. Grove said edge effects had been observed over greater distances than 100m and a precautionary approach was required.

Mitigation measures taken by Wongan Hills included using sprinklers with large droplets to avoid spray drift, end guns turning off in high winds and as they approach the irrigation area boundary, and using soil moisture probes.

Christmas, the hearing commissioner, decided the risk of water extending beyond the irrigated area was “negligible”.

“While there is no research to determine how big the buffer [adjoining the scientific reserve] should be, a 50m buffer is in place under the current consent and there is no evidence that the increase in irrigation, particularly with the additional conditions in place, justifies an increase in the buffer to 100m.”

Christmas added a condition requiring fertiliser to be applied using best management practices, and suggested soil nutrient levels, particularly phosphorus, be monitored.

Opposition still fails to realise DoC has a legal duty to advocate for conservation. Nature is the backbone of our economy. https://t.co/1UZyGnsly4

— Eugenie Sage (@EugenieSage) November 9, 2017

Some might be surprised DoC was missing in action in this case. In 2017, soon after being appointed Conservation Minister, Eugenie Sage said she would restore the department’s ability to advocate for the environment.

DoC-watchers and disgruntled former staff have noted a pattern of managers not fighting for special, rare and threatened places in case it upsets “relationships”. Many would put the granting of a grazing licence in the Upper Haast Valley this week in the same category.

Thompson, the DoC manager, sounds slightly alarmed when talking about more intensive farming at Kaitorete Spit since Thomas bought the property in 2018 – saying it “has had and is continuing to have significant effects on the conservation values”.

Then he returns to pragmatism.

“The reality is this is private farm land and we believe we have worked hard throughout this process to ensure the effects of the irrigation are as much as possible limited to the private land and are not impacting on the surrounding conservation land and reserves.”

That might be true, but wouldn’t that message carry more weight if delivered by DoC’s experts at a consent hearing?

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

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