Rules brought in two years ago via the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and National Environmental Standards for Freshwater focused on protecting and restoring natural wetlands.

But groups including property developers, mining and quarrying companies and those with existing infrastructure in and around wetland areas argued they were too prohibitive.

The Ministry for the Environment consulted late last year and recently proposed changes that make concessions to some of the concerns, including creating consenting pathways for mining, quarrying and landfills.

But gaps remain.

Electricity Networks Association chief executive Graeme Peters said under the rules any infrastructure running along a road (which most lines infrastructure does) near a wetland became subject to a difficult-to-access consent.

“Our concerns are centred on consents for existing or new electricity distribution infrastructure that is in an existing road corridor, which itself is within the 10-metre buffer zone around wetlands.

“The requirement to obtain a consent for routine maintenance and upgrading activities adds no environmental benefits that we can see, and simply adds costs, delay and uncertainty to activities that must be carried out to provide safe and reliable electricity supply.”

Peters said for work to be done on these assets there was a requirement to pass a ‘functional test’ which essentially had to prove the activity could not be completed elsewhere – something that would be difficult.

“Overhead electricity lines don’t need to be in a wetland… but placing them anywhere other than the road corridor will almost certainly introduce significant additional complexity and cost.

New Zealand Infrastructure Commission Te Waihanga also submitted on this issue during initial consultation last year, highlighting the red tape that might ensue.

“A section of the national grid near National Park runs through a wetland. The kingbolts attaching the cross arms at the poles of this section are failing and Transpower may need to change all the old poles out with new poles and cross arms to install brand new structures across the wetland and reduce repeat (maintenance) visits.

“The status of this work is uncertain, and even with like-for-like replacements this work could be treated as an upgrade. Transpower would then need to work through the full effects management hierarchy (which includes community participation as part of the principles for offsetting and compensation),” the submission said.

“The requirement to obtain a consent for routine maintenance and upgrading activities adds no environmental benefits that we can see, and simply adds costs, delay and uncertainty to activities that must be carried out to provide safe and reliable electricity supply.”
– Graeme Peters, Electricity Networks Association

Peters said the rules provided even greater hurdles to building new infrastructure, something that would be problematic as New Zealand moved to greater electrification.

Consenting pathways were granted for quarrying, mining and landfills but not electricity assets despite the ENA asking for it.

Likewise the Defence Force said the rules would make upgrading and maintaining parts of its estate difficult.

“Some Defence facilities, such as Tekapo Military Training Area and Waiouru Military Training Area contain areas of wetlands. Other facilities contain areas of wetted pasture that may also be inadvertently caught by the [rules],” its submission said. 

“For example, Base Ohakea frequently experiences the pooling of water around airfield runways. As these areas are wet, they cannot be mown and some have started growing sedges. The areas are unlikely to meet the pasture exclusion and would therefore be caught under the definition of a natural wetland,” a spokesperson said.

“This would result in NZDF having to comply with extensive conditions or obtain consents to undertake works in or around a “natural wetland” for the purposes of maintaining or upgrading important Defence infrastructure.”

Defence also asked for a consenting pathway to be added so it could undertake training activities at its Waiouru and Tekapo sites where the ecological feature was prevalent.

“Due to the broad nature of [training] and the need for NZDF to train in unfamiliar real-world situations, temporary military training activities are undertaken in a range of locations across the country, and may at times require minor earthworks or temporary water takes, diversion, damming or discharge of water within proximity to wetlands. 

The Ministry for the Environment declined to include this in its changes writing: “defence facilities should be located outside of natural wetlands, and further that the offsetting requirements of a consent pathway, which are necessary, would be problematic.”

Environment and planning lawyer Mike Doesburg said the difficulties for these entities should not be written off as unintended consequences.

“The Government has been quite clear that it’s pretty single-minded in its approach to protecting natural wetlands given how rare and how threatened those ecosystems are.

“Particularly with the Defence stuff, the Government has been pretty clear that this is an egg that needs to be cracked as part of protecting the greater good of natural wetlands.

“NZDF raise this very issue [during consultation] and said, you know, Defence facilities may need to operate in wetlands – make an exception for us, and the Government just flat out said no.”

Doesburg, a Wynn Williams partner, said it was a big issue for the department to deal with.

“They’re caught up in this in a big way and they’e going to have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars potentially, to either consent or relocate infrastructure.”

Doesburg said the issues raised by lines companies were likely to be left for the “too hard basket”.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily been considered and discarded in the same way [as NZDF] but I think it probably has just found its way into the too hard basket.

“I suspect that the Government’s concern is that lots of stuff happens in roads or in existing areas near wetlands and then if they make an exception for some… how do they keep a hard line for the rest of it?”

“They’re going to have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars potentially, to either consent or relocate infrastructure.”
– Mike Doesburg, environmental lawyer.

Doesburg said the policy would certainly act as a deterrent.

“The resource consent that’s required if one can be obtained is certainly not a rubber stamp. It’s a careful consideration. It’s a hard look.

“And I think entities, even well-resourced entities like NZDF and large companies will look closely at that and go: is it worth us going through the time and the cost and the heartache of the challenging consenting process? Or are we better to look somewhere else?”

He said the issues would continue to be tested and teased out over the years as the regulations bedded in.

“We’ll keep seeing those major infrastructure providers, you know, there’s a consenting pathway for them, but they have to show they’ve got a functional need, they’ve got to jump through hoops… and even if they think they can get through those hoops, those applications are likely to be strongly opposed by environmental groups and NGOs, and find its way to the Environment Court.

“So yeah, I think we’re going to keep seeing this play out over the next few years.”

Environment Minister David Parker said any infrastructure already in place when the regulations came into effect in 2020 was able to operate.

“Maintenance can occur as a permitted activity under the regulations, provided certain conditions are met.”

“The policy intent has been to stop further damage and to halt the loss of wetlands, protect their values, and promote restoration. New Zealand has already lost 90 per cent of natural wetlands and studies show they continue to be lost.”

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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