Comment: A court case over irrigators taking water from Central Otago’s Lindis River shows major fault with the way regional councils manage our precious fresh water, says Ray Grubb

Another week and another damning indictment of a regional council’s failure to perform its core function – sustainably manage the country’s finite and precious natural resources such as freshwater.

Otago Fish & Game recently lost a High Court appeal against an Environment Court decision that allowed the Lindis River to be almost completely dewatered by irrigators, leaving only 8 percent of its low flow. This is essentially a death sentence for the Lindis, which will now be a mere trickle when it enters the Clutha.

What’s more, it has essentially facilitated the transfer of almost all the water in the river to title owned by just 35 farmers in the area. If Kiwis believe water in this country is a public resource, think again.

This outcome is the result of Otago Regional Council’s (ORC) shoddy water plan which has failed all parties – Fish & Game and irrigators – over many decades. If there is one thing the litigants agree on in the aftermath of the court battle, it is this fact.

Incumbent councilor and farmer Gary Kelliher accused Fish & Game of being unwilling to compromise. Kelliher irrigates using a deemed permit in another catchment. He has been previously found to be conflicted on a water management issue relating to deemed permits and has not taken part in some decisions. His comments are symptomatic of conflicts of interest within many regional councils.

Besides, when only 8 percent of the river is left after irrigation, what’s left to compromise on?

Long-serving former ORC chief executive Graeme Martin, who ended up jumping ship to later chair the Lindis catchment’s irrigation lobby, made his feelings clear about the water fight when he told media he felt “ashamed” of working for the regional council and that the battle over river flow was “a scandal”.

Ironically, Mr Martin was overseeing the ORC when the water plan was being developed. This led to the lengthy litigation and woeful outcomes for this once magnificent waterway and trout fishery.

But his ‘scandal’ summation is apt indeed. Look no further than the three present or past Environment Court judges who recently found the water plan makes barely any effort to manage water volumes, provides no direction on environmental outcomes and is not fit for purpose.

While the Government’s updated national policy statement (NPS) on freshwater management clearly prioritises the river’s needs first, sadly it is too late for the Lindis. It is anticipated, however, that with the new NPS planning framework the level of disregard we’ve seen displayed for the health of the Lindis River will never be allowed to happen again.

What this sorry saga illustrates, yet again, is a fundamental failure by regional councils and territorial local authorities to manage natural resources in a sustainable manner.

As with the Lindis case, the problem stems from demand to intensify agriculture in some of the driest parts of the country, which are so ill-suited to such land use, by taking the public water resource.

Irrigators in the Lindis claim to be “conservators” of the waterway, but those words ring hollow when they’ve fought for so little water to remain in the river. Let’s be honest, this is purely about economics, and private profit for a few has been put firmly ahead of the environment and the needs of future generations.

Throughout the country we see this repeated. The underlying problem is that invariably we have vested interests dominating council politics and dictating workstreams that focus foremost on driving commerce and economic growth, in direct contravention to the guiding principles of the Resource Management Act (RMA) – i.e., sustainable natural resource management.

The system is broken, and it must be fixed.

Fortunately, there is an opportunity to address this gross inequity via the Government’s Natural and Built Environments Act, the legislation proposed to replace the RMA which is currently under consultation. We wait in anticipation for the final draft.

Meanwhile, a handful of irrigators have fired some unfair and unsubstantiated attacks at Otago Fish & Game for simply trying to save some flow in the Lindis River. Had Fish & Game been successful, there would be more flow for sports fish, indigenous species, recreational users and the river itself. A river intrinsically deserves protection.

It is clear some people want to disempower Fish & Game’s ability to advocate because some of the species we represent are introduced.

They should be particularly wary of throwing stones from glass houses when accusing Fish & Game of “profiteering” off introduced animals – we both manage introduced species, however, the funds Fish & Game generates go back into advocating for the environment, not extracting from it. It would be unwise for some to engage us in an argument over comparative environmental footprints.

When other parties failed the Lindis, Fish & Game stood up for the river. Fish & Game will continue to stand up for the environment, for improved water quality and better flows in our rivers – our licence holders expect nothing less.

Ray Grubb is chairman-elect of the New Zealand Fish & Game Council

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