Conservation group raises alarm over river protection

The Kawarau River as it flows out of Lake Wakatipu. It is one of 15 rivers and lakes considered sufficiently important ...

The Kawarau River as it flows out of Lake Wakatipu. It is one of 15 rivers and lakes considered sufficiently important that Water Conservation Orders have been taken out on them.

New Zealand's most valued protected rivers, lakes and wetlands could be harder to protect under new measures announced by the Government, Fish and Game says.

Fish and Game said they were concerned about proposals in a discussion paper on freshwater to allow regional councils to block Water Conservation Orders (WCOs).

But Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith told Fairfax Media he was personally very supportive of WCOs and the measures would strengthen them.

In fact regional councils will be given the power to propose WCOs themselves.

WCOs were set up in 1981. There are now 15 of them, including rivers such as the Motu, Kawarau, Rakaia, and lakes such as Ellesmere.

Fish and Game chief executive Bryce Johnson described them as "the equivalent of national park status for rivers".

The measures are among a raft of initiatives to manage freshwater announced by Smith and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy.

The proposed new measures will require WCO applications to consider any planning processes already underway; and allow the Minister for the Environment to delay an application if there will be a conflict with a regional planning process.

Johnson gave the example of the Ngaruroro River in Hawke's Bay that his organisation is applying to be covered by a WCO. The Hawke's Bay Regional Council has opposed the application.

"The Government wants to change the law to make them subservient to regional planning processes, the very process WCOs were created to sit above. 

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"This proposal would be the beginning of the end for Water Conservation Orders, completely reversing the hierarchy of the present law," Johnson said.

"The proposed reforms will allow regional councils to propose WCOs," Smith said.

Forest and Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell said the idea that regional councils could propose WCOs was a positive move that he supported, but he was also concerned about regional councils being able to block them.

Hackwell said the measure proposed a constraint to protect a river, but if somebody wanted to put up a development which would undermine a WCO, it could not be opposed.

Smith said the Government's view was that directly elected regional councils were as entitled as Fish and Game to be involved in the development of WCOs.

The Government wanted to make a better link between WCOs and the Resource Management Act. Iwi would also be more directly involved in decisions.

The new proposals stem from earlier work of the Land and Water Forum, a grouping of officials, farmers, industry and conservation and recreation groups.

At the end of last year Fish and Game withdrew from participating in the forum for fear of being muzzled over what it could say in public.

The 23 initiatives in the Government's document include: national regulations to get stock out of waterways; strengthening the national requirement on councils to set limits; standardised water permit conditions on efficient use of water and minimising nutrient loss; improved iwi involvement in council development of water plans and water conservation orders; and an additional $100 million clean-up fund for lakes, rivers, and wetlands.

Federated Farmers welcomed the discussion paper, although president William Rolleston warned there needed to be transparency to ensure the measures were practical for farmers.

"We're pleased that the discussion paper recognises that both rural and urban water users have a role to play, but it goes beyond the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum in terms of stock exclusion, such as the broader definition of what constitutes a waterway," Rolleston said.

Fish and Game also said loopholes would allow some dairy cattle to foul rivers, lakes and wetlands until 2025.

Lowland dairy cattle and pigs will have to excluded from rivers by 2017, and beef cattle and deer by 2025.

Only dairy cattle on dairy platforms will be excluded from waterways by 2017; those on run-off areas had until 2020, while owners who leased land to dairy farmers did not have to comply until 2025.

"Agriculture needs to be made much more accountable. Today it's simply socially unacceptable to let stock in rivers; people view it in the same way as it's unacceptable to smoke in restaurants," Johnson said.

Smith said herd owners whose cattle were farmed on other properties during the off season would not have to comply until later.

"We need to be practical because dairy farmers whose cattle go to run off areas would not have been expecting this rule," he said.

Public submissions on the proposals close April 22 and a series of public meetings and hui will be held in March and April.

 - Stuff

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