A company associated with veteran sailor Sir Russell Coutts amends its water consent application – again. David Williams reports

Almost two years after it was lodged, a hearing date has been set for a controversial water-take consent on the Crown Terrace, near Queenstown.

BSTGT Ltd, of which veteran sailor Sir Russell Coutts is a director and shareholder, applied for a regional council consent in April 2019, to replace five historic water permits with three points of take – two on Royal Burn Creek’s north branch and one on New Chums Creek. The joint applicant is the family trust of Tony McQuilkin, a tourism industry veteran and Coutts’ neighbour, but most of the water is funnelled to Coutts’ property, Barley Station.

Independent commissioner Rob van Voorthuysen has sent a note advising a hearing of up to three days will be held in Queenstown in June. It’s not clear how many submitters have been notified.

Opponents have criticised the consent application – which, to be fair, has since been changed several times – especially for asking for water volumes above the creeks’ mean annual flow, and without any guarantee of a base flow. The idea that Coutts’ private golf course might be bright green while creek beds were dry, especially in summer, incensed some. Claims by BSTGT’s consultants that the effect of the consent on freshwater values would be less than minor raised eyebrows.

In the latest amendments, lodged with the Otago Regional Council (ORC) earlier this month, BSTGT’s consultants, Ahikā, state the water needed to irrigate the golf course is less than previously estimated. Of the 36 hectares of “paddock” occupied by the golf course, 20ha is irrigated. The maximum annual irrigation demand for the course is about 39,000 cubic metres a year – just over 3 percent of the total requested.

“If this land had remained in pasture then the average annual irrigation demand would be 274,960 m³/yr,” the Ahikā note, from senior consultant Hilary Lennox, says.

(BSTGT has recently applied for consent from Queenstown’s council to extend the golf course.)

The annual irrigation demand across Barley Station and McQuilkin’s property is 1.43 million m³. But it is applying for 85 percent of that, the amendment states, because “we are mindful of ORC’s policies that require no more water to be granted than was taken previously”.

Newsroom approached Ahikā, Barley Station’s manager Kit Gordon, and several submitters for comment but had no response. High-profile residents on the Crown Terrace include Rich Lister Mark Ching and former MediaWorks boss Mark Weldon.

The Otago Regional Council has now created a page on its website devoted to the consent.

Barley Station takes millions of litres of water a day for irrigation. Photo: Google Earth

When the consent was initially lodged, the consultants for BSTGT and the McQuilkin family trust said it should sail through without notification. Indeed, no one was approached before the application was made. The “nearest known downstream authorised surface water takes” were more than 4km downstream, in the main steam of Royal Burn Creek, the application claimed.

But once neighbours who rely on the Royal Burn for stock and domestic water caught wind of the application, they reminded the regional council of its own rules – that they can take up to 25,000 litres a day.

Both Ahikā and the council have acknowledged they got it wrong.

Ahikā’s letter to the council on March 3, containing the latest amendments, says it was only in August last year – 16 months after the application was lodged – it was “made aware” of several affected parties downstream that could be adversely affected by the abstraction. The latest changes were made in light of changing legislation, the letter said, but also “to address potential adverse effects that were not understood when the application was first lodged”.

The council’s consents manager, Joanna Gilroy, told Newsroom last week: “Once information about the other users was known, council took all steps to ensure that all parties that needed to be involved in the application were included.”

The consent now has limited notification – restricted to those properties deemed affected by the water takes.

Ahikā has advised the ORC a hydrological study of the Royal Burn Creek’s north branch was started in late November.

It’s not clear if a separate hydrological report has been prepared, but Ahikā’s summary says water losses to ground have been confirmed below BSTGT’s intake, with the creek regaining water downstream, after a swamp. “From our observations, we are confident that even when the Royal Burn north branch is dry at Glencoe Rd, there will still be water downstream of the applicant’s property for permitted users.”

The consulting firm then quotes the regional council submission of Crown Terrace property owner Jef Desbecker, who with wife Robina Bodle is part of the nine-property LOFTS water scheme: “In the very dry summer months, when the creek runs low or is dry in the vicinity of Glencoe Rd, the creek is naturally fed by swamps and seeps west of Glencoe Rd which bring the Royal Burn back to a modest flow.”

What Desbecker’s submission goes on to say is: “If the Royal Burn [north branch] is run totally dry by BSTGT taking all the water and diverting it to large reservoirs suffering from extensive evaporation and various parts of their property to grow ready-lawn and keep a golf course green, what will happen to the aquifers along the Crown Terrace? Will these seeps and swamps dry up and cease to feed the lower Royal Burn? Will we be without drinking water? Will we have to cease keeping stock because we have no water for them? Will the algae completely overtake the remaining trickle of water?”

The latest BSTGT amendments suggest a consent condition to halt irrigation takes (but not stock water takes) when flows on the Royal Burn drop below 5 litres per second at a point downstream of the “observed losing reach”.

“Because we believe the natural MALF [mean annual low flow] of the creek to be close to 0 L/s along this stretch, we do not believe that anything would be gained from maintaining a residual flow higher that that already proposed.”

Newsroom hasn’t seen a copy of the hydrological report so it’s not clear if the monitoring was just done in summer.

Construction at Barley Station, on the Crown Terrace, with the golf course visible above. Photo: George Murahidy

Water takes are measured in different ways – instantly, if you like, in litres per second, but also in daily, monthly and annual volumes. Takes in the BSTGT and McQuilkin family trust consent have been amended twice, and in different ways.

Permitted existing takes are 319.5 litres per second, which they offered to be reduced to 160 L/s initially, and then down to 89.5 L/s. The annual volume, meanwhile, has whittled down from the permitted 5.3 million m³ a year, to 1.8 million m³/yr in the first iteration, and now, in the latest amendments filed earlier this month, to 1.2 million m³/yr.

The existing water rights are held in what are called “deemed permits”, which date back to the gold mining era. A 2019 report into the Otago Regional Council’s handling of freshwater management, which found its system was inadequate, criticised the regional council for issuing replacement consents for deemed permits for decades-long terms “with relatively permissive conditions”.

BSTGT and McQuilkin family trust have shortened the suggested life of the consent from 25 years to 15 years.

Coutts, a five-time America’s Cup winner, has been a controversial figure in New Zealand sailing. The helmsman jumped ship from Team New Zealand with tactician Brad Butterworth to race for Swiss syndicate Alinghi. He was sacked from the team in 2004, but returned to the Cup with Oracle Team USA.

Earlier this year, SailGP, the company headed by Coutts which, in 2018, launched a rival race to the America’s Cup, threatened court action against three companies, including Dunedin’s Animation Research Ltd, owned by Sir Ian Taylor, over the graphics used for the America’s Cup TV coverage. The legal stoush was settled when broadcast and media production companies Circle-O and Riedel Communications agreed to pay a licensing fee.

But Taylor was adamant the graphics were his company’s original works and no licence fee should be paid. He told the Herald in January: “We’ve not been a party to any discussion. I’m not agreeing to anything.”

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

Leave a comment