PCE report: Hydroelectricity or wild rivers?

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr. Jan Wright has issued a report "Hydroelectricity or wild rivers? Climate change versus natural heritage" (PDF, 5MB) highlighting the weaknesses of the current options for preserving wild and scenic rivers. The report criticises the recent National Policy Statements for Renewable Electricity Generation and Freshwater Management: "Where the two NPSs may have counterbalanced each other, instead they favour developing hydroelectricity. The NPS on Renewable Electricity Generation does not sufficiently recognise the irreversible damage of some renewable electricity proposals. And the NPS on Freshwater Management does not explicitly recognise the value of preserving wild and scenic rivers" (p68).

The report examines the competing demands for preservation and development of rivers. The most robust means for protecting rivers outside national parks is a Water Conservation Order but only two WCOs have been granted since the Resource Management Act (RMA) was introduced in 1991. The most recent WCO of significance to kayakers was that obtained for the Rangitata River. Whitewater NZ and Fish & Game applied for a WCO on the Hurunui but this was rendered untenable by the ECAN act passed by the National Government in 2010. A WCO may cost the applicant more than $500,000 and take many years to process.

This has led to an ad-hoc regime of development and protection, with protection for instream recreation generally lacking. The National Policy Statement (NPS) on Renewable Electricity Generation and the NPS on Freshwater Management both skew decisions in favour of hydro development over recreational amenity. For example, "as a starting point the consent process under the NPS on Renewable Electricity Generation does not consider the irreversibility of a hydroelectric scheme on a river. Taking irreversible damage into consideration would encourage lower impact alternatives" (p59).

Where rivers run through land under DOC stewardship, they fall between the cracks in legislation, as "DOC can only take into account the conservation value of land on either side of the river" and LINZ (who administers the riverbed) is "not required to consider the conservation value of the riverbeds (and consequently the rivers) when granting occupation rights" (p64).

The report notes that no schedule of wild and scenic rivers exists and suggests the Minister for the Environment or the Land and Water Forum might create such a schedule. The report concludes, "Where such conflicts exist between hydroelectricity and wild and scenic rivers - climate change versus natural heritage - I have concluded that we need to pay more attention to the protection of the rivers."

The report offers the following recommendations:

  1. The Minister for the Environment direct her officials (or the Land and Water Forum) to consider how the NPS on Renewable Electricity Generation or the NPS on Freshwater Management can be amended to better recognise the value of wild and scenic rivers.
  2. The Minister for the Environment direct her officials (or the Land and Water Forum) to:
    1. investigate which wild and scenic rivers outside conservation land would be good candidates for protection with water conservation orders,
      and
    2. investigate streamlining the water conservation order process by requiring a decision within nine months of an application and the hearing of applications by the Environmental Protection Authority.
  3. The Minister of Conservation direct her officials to identify important wild and scenic rivers running through stewardship land and reclassify the land if they consider the rivers need protection.
  4. The Minister of Conservation direct her officials to investigate transferring the administration of riverbeds located within conservation land to the Department of Conservation.
  5. The Ministers for the Environment and Conservation seek amendments to legislation so that either:
    1. a commercial operation on conservation land must have approval under the Conservation Act 1986 before resource consents can be sought.
      or
    2. a commercial operation on conservation land that requires resource consent is considered at a single concession–consent hearing, and that the concession and consent decisions are made separately.