Government torpedoes own flagship water reform group

Release date: 
Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 00:00
EDS, Ecologic, Fish & Game, Whitewater NZ and Forest & Bird logos

Five leading environmental and outdoor recreation groups said today that the Government legislation on water conservation orders passed yesterday under urgency has sent a torpedo into the Government-backed national forum working on water management reform.

The groups said the Government’s legislation to replace Environment Canterbury includes provisions that reduce the statutory protection of iconic rivers, opening them up for dams and irrigation use.

The water bodies immediately affected are the Rakaia, Rangitata and Ahuriri Rivers and Lakes Coleridge and Ellesmere, along with the application for protection of the Hurunui River, which was awaiting a hearing in the Environment Court.

The five groups said this change was pushed through parliament without any warning or consultation with the Land and Water Forum, which the Government set up last year to work on water management reforms that would be good for the economy and the environment.

“The Land and Water Forum has been the best environmental and governance initiative of this Government to date, but that is now in jeopardy following this major breach of trust from the Government,” Environmental Defence Society (EDS) chair Gary Taylor said.

The five groups – Environmental Defence Society, Ecologic, Fish & Game, Whitewater NZ and Forest & Bird – said it is hard to see how the forum can continue as a collaborative and trusting process after yesterday’s law change.

“Changing the rules for water conservation orders was not needed to fix any problems at Environment Canterbury. This Bill was used as cover to smuggle in a change in the law equivalent to allowing mining in national parks,” Ecologic executive director Guy Salmon said.

Fish & Game chief executive Bryce Johnson said: “A water conservation order is a national park for a river – there are only 15 in existence, but they provide bottom-line protection to just a few of our most precious and iconic wild waterways.”

Whitewater NZ patron Hugh Canard said: “Conservation orders are a national-level protection tool – just like national parks – and so it is utterly wrong to change their protection through a law about one region. Is the Government really saying that not one of our wild rivers is worth protecting?”

Forest & Bird general manager Mike Britton said: “The changes to the water conservation orders are as significant as the Schedule 4 mining issue – and to make it even worse the law has been changed with no consultation and no Select Committee process at all.”

“The new law is a giant kick in the guts for the thousands of Kiwi hunters and anglers who have collectively invested millions of dollars through the Fish & Game Council and other environment groups in securing protection for the select few rivers and lakes with conservation orders,” said Bryce Johnson.

“I would like to know whether industry groups – with whom we have worked so well within the forum – have been lobbying behind the forum’s back, despite the Ministers’ directive that that was not to happen. Or has the Government simply taken upon itself to leave the forum high and dry?”

Mike Britton said: “Forest & Bird considers the forum to be the sole good initiative of this Government on conservation, but its actions yesterday in unilaterally gutting our main river protection law seeks to destroy the only progress that was being made to protect our unique natural environment.”

The Land and Water Forum was established in 2009 by the Government to allow the three key sectors with an interest in water management - commercial, public and iwi - to reach consensus on reforms. It is funded by the Government and based on the Scandinavian model of ‘collaborative governance’ promoted by the National Party.

“The Government cannot ask stakeholders to behave in a collaborative manner unless it is prepared to behave in the same way itself,” said Guy Salmon. Contacts:

Gary Taylor, Environmental Defence Society chair: 021 895-896 or 09 810-9594 Guy Salmon, Ecologic executive director: 021 548-336 Bryce Johnson, Fish & Game NZ CEO: 021 397-897 Hugh Canard, Whitewater NZ patron: 03 332-3414 Mike Britton, Forest & Bird general manager: 021 783-776


Water Conservation Orders

  1. Water conservation orders (WCOs) were enacted as the ‘Wild and Scenic Rivers’ amendment to the Water and Soil Conservation Act in 1981 and were retained in the Resource Management Act 1991. WCOs are considered the ‘national parks’ of water management in NZ. They recognise and provide for ‘outstanding amenity or intrinsic values’ of waters, either in their natural state or where the waters are outstanding even if modified.
  2. The purpose of a WCO is to give primacy to the preservation or protection of recognised outstanding freshwater resources; rivers, lakes or wetlands. Preservation orders are made out for freshwater bodies in their natural state, while protection orders are for modified waters, which can still be utilised provided management of their waters sustains the recognised outstanding resource.
  3. The Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Act has changed both the decision-making process and the criteria for WCOs in Canterbury.
    1. Ministers have previously approved WCOs following an inquiry and recommendation by the Environment Court. This process was independent of the regional council in recognition of WCOs’ national status. The recommendation will now be made by Environment Canterbury Commissioners appointed by the Minister, without any rights of appeal to the Environment Court.
    2. The criteria for deciding WCOs were previously set out in Part IX of the Resource Management Act and the key test was whether the water body had ‘outstanding amenity or intrinsic values’. Now the test to be applied both to new applications and to proposals to amend existing WCOs is no longer the matters in Part IX, but whether the protection of a water body promotes ‘sustainable management’, while also considering the previously non-statutory Canterbury Strategic Water Study. The effect of the change is to give economic values a prominent role in the decision process, treating the river not as the equivalent of a national park, but rather as a ‘working river’. The priority to conservation which was asserted in the Court of Appeal decision on the Rakaia River case disappears.
    3. In addition, the draft Hurunui WCO, which has almost completed its statutory process and is currently before the Environment Court, will be sent back for reconsideration by the new Environment Canterbury Commissioners against the new statutory test.
  4. More general information and the list of existing WCOs:

The Land and Water Forum

  1. The Land and Water Forum was announced by the Government in June 2009 as the primary process for recommending a way forward on water management in New Zealand. The Minister for the Environment and the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry have asked the Forum to advise on how water should be managed in New Zealand. The Forum is due to report to the Ministers by 31 July 2010.
  2. Environment Minister Nick Smith said on 8 June 2009: "Today's announcements are about Government setting the direction of water reform and setting up a process with stakeholders and Mâori to develop solutions. This approach reflects a new style of collaborative environmental governance outlined in National's 2006 Bluegreen vision document and 2008 election policy.”
  3. The Forum comprises a range of primary industry groups, environmental and recreational NGOs, iwi and other organisations with an interest in fresh water and land management. The Forum’s task is to:
    1. conduct a stakeholder-led collaborative governance process to recommend reform of New Zealand’s fresh water management;
    2. through a consensus process, identify shared outcomes and goals for fresh water and related land management;
    3. identify options to achieve these outcomes and goals;
    4. produce a written report which recommends shared outcomes, goals and long-term strategies for fresh water in New Zealand.
    5. More information on the Forum: