*UPDATED* with ECan comment provided on March 23.

Three consents owned by the South Island’s largest irrigation company have been terminated. David Williams reports

Canterbury’s regional council, ECan, has terminated three of Central Plains Water’s unexercised resource consents. Part of the justification for doing so was the findings of a damning – but hidden – scientific report.

Collectively known as the Steeles Rd consents – originally issued to another company, Robindale Dairies Ltd, in 2007 – they allow an irrigation scheme to be built about 10km from Central Plains’ main diversion point on the Rakaia River, and for water to be taken.

The consents were about to lapse, so the irrigation company, the South Island’s biggest, applied for a 10-year extension. In a decision issued last July, ECan declined to do so, which meant the consents were terminated.

Central Plains has formally objected.

Crucial to ECan’s decision was strict flow and allocation limits set by a water conservation order – likened to national park status for awa – which aims to protect the Rakaia’s outstanding characteristics and features.

ECan’s principal consents planner Richard Purdon writes in the July 6 decision: “While consents have been granted to comply with these limits, there is evidence to suggest the way they have been implemented … has lead (sic) to these limits being exceeded, resulting in adverse effects on the lower part of the river that were not anticipated when the order was granted.”

ECAN-Steeles-Decline by David Williams on Scribd

This passage repeats allegations contained in an unsanitised version of what’s known as the Rakaia Water Balance report, leaked to Newsroom last year.

ECan has been threatened with legal action if it doesn’t act on the report’s findings.

Central Plains chief executive Mark Pizey declined to comment on the consent termination. Last October, he said: “CPWL will work in conjunction with Environment Canterbury to ensure accurate data is used in the further modelling to support the final report.”

Nicky Snoyink, regional conservation manager for environmental lobby group Forest & Bird, describes the decision as encouraging.

“This is a definite signal that things are changing, and that activities that may have once been acceptable no longer are.

“It is now no longer possible to damage the environment and the rivers for private profit, and hopefully this is the sign of things to come.”

Newsroom only stumbled across the consent decision in correspondence released by ECan after an official information request.

ECan confirmed the objection mentioned related to an ongoing case over a consent decision, but the publicly searchable consent records didn’t contain the application or decision.

(However, it did reveal a 2020 application by Central Plains to take the Steeles Rd water from its existing infrastructure, about 10km upstream.)

A copy of the extension decision was emailed earlier this month by one of ECan’s communications staff, who noted: “CPW contests that there has been a breach of the water allocation limit. This decision is also the subject of a formal objection under section 357A of the RMA.”

ECan’s consents planning manager Aurora Grant said it received an objection to the lapse extension decision on July 26 last year but it did not contain any reasons. They were sought on August 5.

“To date, CPW have not finalised the reasons for their objection and so this has not yet proceeded to a hearing.”

The other big player in the Rakaia saga is Trustpower, which operates a hydro-electricity power scheme at Lake Coleridge and also releases irrigation water down the river.  

Stages one and two of Central Plains Water comprise 350km of headrace canal and pipe infrastructure while the Sheffield stage of the scheme operates separately. Photo: ECan

ECan planner Purdon’s termination decision sets out the three main considerations for an extension: if “substantial progress or effort” is being made to exercise the consent; if approvals have been obtained from affected parties; and if the extension clashes with statutory plans.

Central Plains explained to ECan the challenges it faced but Purdon said considerable time had passed.

“It appears that while effort was initially made, hence the two extensions already granted, I was provided insufficient evidence by way of contracts or agreements to demonstrate sufficient ongoing effort to give effect to these consents.”

Much of the land within the consent’s “command area” was already irrigated.

Given evidence that the Rakaia River flow allocation limits were “likely to be exceeded”, the decision said, granting the extension would be contrary to the latest national policy statement on freshwater management, and the concept of Te Mana o te Wai, which prioritises the health and wellbeing of the waterbodies and ecosystems.

Purdon thought there were adversely affected parties that hadn’t given approval – specifically, 16 third-party consent holders referred to in consent conditions, with which agreements are required for the use of “spare” water.

In declining to grant the consent extensions, the ECan decision gives an insight into the complexities of Rakaia’s irrigation consents. Purdon said complying with changeable rates, volumes, and flow limits at any given time “is so complex they have proven to be unworkable and impractical in another consent” held by the company.

“This has resulted in the consent holder using a method not specified in the consent to take the ‘spare’ water it is authorised, which we now have evidence is resulting in a breach of the allocation limit in the WCO and having adverse effects on the lower Rakaia River and existing consent holders not considered at the time.”

The irrigation company’s “alternative strategy” was detailed in the hidden Rakaia report, which was authored by senior hydrological scientist and data analyst Wilco Terink. Terink withdrew from the project after two-and-a-half years, and subsequently resigned, after his bosses signalled they wanted contentious findings removed.

(The Purdon decision occurred while Terink was still working on the project, but amidst tense negotiations with his bosses over what his report would say.)

Central Plains’ strategy, enacted in 2015, relies on “subservient water” not being used by other consent holders. However, the Rakaia report alleged the company “exceeds its consented rates”.

Last November, ECan’s resource management technical lead of zone delivery, Paul Murney, wrote to Central Plains saying it was coordinating a compliance plan which would delve into how water is allocated. “We may require a better understanding of the water abstraction data.”

Neither side could find written confirmation ECan accepted the irrigation company’s alternative water-take strategy in 2015.

Correspondence released to Newsroom shows Central Plains’ environmental manager Fiona Crombie took issue with several points with Terink’s minutes from an online meeting in April 2020.

In response to Purdon’s decision, Crombie challenged the data used in the Rakaia report, telling ECan’s science director, Dr Tim Davie: “I find it hard to believe that the averaging method did not work.”

“We are also aware that Environment Canterbury is taking steps on this issue, which we consider appropriate, and are adopting a watching brief.” – Sara Clarke

Central Plains was created to further irrigate land between the Waimakariri and Rakaia Rivers. The initial concept was to store water behind a 55m-high dam in the Waianiwaniwa Valley, in the Malvern Hills.

When the company was advised its consent application would be declined, it pivoted to a “run-of-river” scheme, mainly drawing water from the Rakaia.

Consents were granted in 2010 – the year the Government sacked ECan’s councillors – and confirmed by the Environment Court in 2012.

Central Plains, which was initiated with council loans, is a cooperative of 380 farmer shareholders, supplying irrigation to about 45,000 hectares – with the potential for up to 63,000 hectares.

It has, no doubt, provided jobs and wealth. A 2014 economic assessment said the scheme would add $270 million of revenue to Canterbury.

But at what cost?

The Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ report Our Freshwater, published in 2020, found many Canterbury’s rivers had worsening trends for nitrate-nitrogen trends, E. coli, and turbidity. The report noted irrigated land in the province almost doubled, to 478,000 hectares, between 2002 and 2017.

Many Canterbury waterways are drying up. The finger is being pointed at an over-commitment of ground and surface water, with the situation worsened by droughts.

In 2010, 10 of Canterbury’s 29 water allocation zones were fully allocated, and six more were above 80 percent of the limit.

More intensive farming, especially dairying, has led to considerable increases in nitrate levels in groundwater, while intensive farming and urban development has increased eutrophication in lakes.

The Terink report – which ECan says is still being updated, despite multiple reviews being completed – said the Rakaia was being “impeded and manipulated” beyond what was anticipated in the water conservation order.

Evidence of the Rakaia’s degradation is building.

ECan commissioned the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA) to collect the observations of experienced anglers about the physical and biological changes in the Rakaia, Ashburton/Hakatere, and Rangitata Rivers.  

What they noticed was reduced flows, water quality concerns, and a dramatic decline in fish species, possibly through increased temperatures, more fine sediment, and increased algae.

The NIWA report said: “The convergence of opinions from a diverse but experienced group of anglers about physical and biological changes they have noticed during their decades of involvement with one of the three hāpua provide compelling evidence of change. Unfortunately, almost all such changes have been negative.”

Some of the toughest questions through the Rakaia saga have been for ECan – about its inability to monitor consents and its reliance on data from other parties, like Central Plains and Trustpower.

Bill Southward, who has won awards for his advocacy for the Rakaia, told Newsroom last year: “They give out these consents, they’ve got to check that it’s actually happening.”

Forest & Bird’s Snoyink said earlier this month: “You can make the toughest rules in the world but if they are not monitored, and if no one is monitoring the monitor, then that really is complete systemic failure.”

Anglers wrote to the Ministry for the Environment late last year requesting an independent investigation into ECan.

MfE’s Sara Clarke, the implementation director for climate, land and water, tells Newsroom it has discussed the concerns with ECan (Environment Canterbury) “and will respond to the anglers in due course”. It is yet to see a copy of the Rakaia report.

“We are also aware that Environment Canterbury is taking steps on this issue, which we consider appropriate, and are adopting a watching brief.”

Anglers won’t take much comfort from that response.

The NIWA report said over many decades they’ve observed a tragedy of the commons, while decision-makers, it was perceived, had more of an emphasis “on facilitating irrigation at the expense of the environment”.

Is the decision to terminate Central Plains’ consents at Steeles Rd a sign of things to come? Time will tell.

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

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