Large Scale Irrigation Proposal by the Hurunui Water Project

Doug Rankin describes the background to the Hurunui Water Project and how kayakers can be involved.

On 20 July 2009 Environment Canterbury (ECan) publicly notified an application by the Hurunui Water Project (HWP) for eight water consents for building an extensive irrigation scheme using water from the Hurunui River. The proposal is supported by many local farmers and various commercial interests and could incorporate some hydro power generation too. This poses a direct threat to our interest in protecting the existing kayaking runs in their current natural state by way of a Water Conservation Order (WCO) for the Hurunui River, which we applied for in 2008 and for which a Special Tribunal Hearing was held in March and May of this year.

Outcome of the Recent WCO Hearing

In mid May 2009 a Special Tribunal completed hearing evidence put forward by Fish & Game NZ (F&G), the New Zealand Recreational Canoeing Association (NZRCA; recently renamed Whitewater NZ) and many other interested parties. F&G and the NZRCA applied for a WCO to protect the Hurunui River above the Mandamus confluence (at the end of the Hawarden Gap run below Maori Gully) to preserve the various recreational and ecological values of this Wild and Scenic River.

On 14 August the Special Tribunal announced its decision. The Tribunal found our evidence in support of a nationally outstanding kayaking amenity most persuasive. This is a testament to the submissions we received in support of the Order and the case we presented, ably led by Maree Baker of Anderson Lloyd, Dunedin.

The Tribunal found that among other nationally important fishing, cultural and natural feature values, the mainstem Hurunui River from the Sisters Stream to Surveyors Stream (bottom of Maori Gully) was nationally outstanding for white water recreation (kayaking, rafting, bugging) and deserved protection in its natural state. The same applied to Maori Gully for its natural and wild and scenic character. The Tribunal concluded that the rest of the mainstem Hurunui is protected from dams, but water may be taken out below the takeout of Maori Gully.

Despite finding that the South Branch contributes important sediment and flows that support the outstanding values downstream of the confluence of the South Branch and the mainstem the Tribunal found that it would not necessarily result in the actual loss of the outstanding characteristics. Therefore having regards also to the needs for irrigation, the Tribunal has not precluded a dam on the South Branch, and have left that decision to be made pursuant to normal sustainable management tests.

The findings of the Special Tribunal have no statutory weight until the WCO is gazetted by the Minister. In the interim, there is a 15 day period in which opposing parties can appeal to the Environment Court. More on this below...

Proposal by Hurunui Water Project (HWP)

The proposal is to place a small dam (weir) at the outflow of Lake Sumner and increase the storage available in the Lake within its natural height range and a 75 metre high dam on the South Branch above the North Esk River that would provide for regulated flows down the Upper Hurunui and an offtake of up to 32 cumecs of water down near the Mandamus River during the irrigation season. It is proposed to irrigate much of the Amuri plains, including what is currently the Balmoral Forest and land across to Hawarden, Waikari and through to Scargill, the head of the Waipara River and then land either side of the SH1 North road from Waipara just up to short of Greta Valley.

The proposal in general will 'clip' peak flood flows and increase low summer flows in the river during the irrigation season when water is needed, thus having a major impact on the natural flow variability and flow opportunities for paddlers of the river, which is one of the principal reasons the river is so highly prized. Residual flows of 9 cumecs and 4.5 cumecs would be maintained for the outflow from Lake Sumner and over the dam on the South Branch. The scheme intends to use Lake Sumner as the primary storage and water release facility with the dam on the South Branch being filled to its maximum and used in dry years (and run down to its minimum every five years or so) to buffer the scheme when Lake Sumner storage runs out.

How does the HWP Proposal Fit with the WCO Process?

ECan is obliged to consider water consent applications as soon as it can. Although a WCO has been recommended it does not fully protect our interests (a dam on the South Branch will reduce the flow variability including low flows for beginners and high flows for experts that are so important in Maori Gully) and the draft WCO can be appealed. If not appealed then it has to be gazetted by the Minister for the Environment for it to become law. If appealed the WCO case has to be heard in the Environment Court and the arguments gone through again. During this time the draft decision by the Special Tribunal has no statutory weight and only a little relevance at best.

In the meantime the resource consent process for HWP goes through similar stages in a parallel process, albeit slightly behind the WCO process, including a likely public Hearing. The Hearing decision can be appealed and if so will go to the Environment Court. Thus it could take a couple of years for the process to play out. If a WCO was granted and gazetted in time then this would stop the HWP resource consent process in its current form.

What Threat Does the HWP Pose for Kayaking on the Hurunui?

At the time of writing it is not clear what precise impacts will arise from the proposed scheme. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, the consents applied for the scheme are only of a general nature as many aspects of the scheme are not finalised. For example, the sites and operation of the intake and hydro power generation are not yet decided. Secondly, it is not clear how the scheme will operate and what residual flows will be left in the river. Flows have been modeled but not where we use the river, e.g, near Jollie Brook or Maori Gully.

Recreational consultants for HWP have suggested impacts on kayakers and fishermen will be minor but they provide no detailed evidence, such as flow data over a number of years, to support this. We are currently seeking more data from HWP to help clarify this situation. In our consultation in the past with the HWP we have been saying we want variable flows including low summer flows whereas the HWP proponents have always offered a more constant higher flow during summer months as well as insisting that this is what we want!

We do have real concerns, however, that the flood peak clipping and virtually complete capture of flood flows from the South Branch and increased flows in the river over the summer period will reduce the accessibility of the river and especially Maori Gully to beginner/intermediate paddlers, and particularly change the river character, its utility and the ability of the river to undergo major changes as a result of floods.

We also have some overarching concerns that if the consents were granted as they stand then in the future flows in the river could be changed significantly from their natural pattern, eg, as those with the water consents chose to maximize benefits from access to river water for their use rather than for current river users. This might result in unexpected negative consequences for recreational river users. Until we know more about the final proposal it is hard to comment further.

What Do We Want You To Do?

We would like as many people as possible to fill out a submission opposing the current HWP proposal. Even though many if not all of you will have already presented a submission in support of the WCO we still need to put up as many submissions as possible to protect what we currently have and value. Without this we run the risk of losing what we already have.

Submissions are due at ECan on or before 5.00 pm Friday 11 September 2009.

Please fill out and send the submission form to before 7 September 2009 and we’ll forward the necessary copies onto ECan and HWP.

Thank you for your help and support!

Doug Rankin
On behalf of Whitewater NZ (formerly the NZRCA)