Concern at farmers' illegal water use

Last updated 06:44 05/03/2014

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Some Southland farmers have been unlawfully taking water from rivers and streams for more than a decade, putting trout habitats at risk and undermining future farm planning.

Environment Southland said up to a dozen farmers in the Five Rivers area had continued to take water from rivers and streams despite their Lawful Existing Use rights expiring in 2001.

When the Resource Management Act came into effect in 1991, farmers were given 10 years to apply for resource consent to take water before their existing rights were stymied by the act.

Environment Southland consents manager Stephen West said between six and 12 farmers in the Five Rivers area never applied for the consent.

Though the RMA allowed the farmers to take water for stock to drink, they were not allowed to take it for other purposes.

But Environment Southland suspected many had been.

Mr West said landowners of many years ago had diverted water from the rivers and streams to their farms and the practice had carried on through the generations.

The process of getting all the farms to comply with the rules was complicated because Environment Southland and the farmers were dealing with records that were in some cases more than 100 years old.

An Environment Southland staff member began gathering information on the unconsented taking of water several years ago, but did not get far due to the complexity of the issue, Mr West said.

"The issue has become more evident as development increases. It's not something we've forgotten about."

Unconsented taking of water was increasingly becoming an issue in the area because increased quantities of water were being allocated for new development, he said.

The council had no idea how much water was being taken from the waterways, spelling trouble for future planning and putting trout in danger.

The council needed to set minimum flow rates to ensure there was enough water for trout to live in.

Fish and Game Southland operations manager Zane Moss said streams within the Five Rivers catchment were relatively small compared to other areas, meaning the trout habitat was more sensitive to changes in river flows.

Once the flow dropped below a certain point, farmers with water consents were supposed to adjust accordingly. But, with unconsented taking of water also occurring, the water level could fall below the minimum required for trout.

If the water became too low the trout would either die or swim to other rivers, he said.

Mr West said it was difficult to estimate how much water was being taken by the farmers as there were no water meters and some water was lost in their unlined water races.

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Federated Farmers North Otago, Otago and Southland senior policy planner David Cooper said there needed to be an open discussion between the farmers and the regional council on the issue.

If there was only limited water the regional council needed to be able to allocate it fairly and it needed all the information available to do so, he said.

"No doubt the farmers are under the impression they are allowed to do it. It goes back years and years," he said.

"We welcome discussions between farmers and regional councils."

- The Southland Times

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