Councillors kept in dark over controversial water deal

A premises in the Ashburton Business Estate, where the Ashburton District Council is in the process of allowing a ...

A premises in the Ashburton Business Estate, where the Ashburton District Council is in the process of allowing a bottled water company to extract 40 billion litres of water.

Only a small number of people have been involved in controversial negotiations between the Ashburton District Council and a company planning to set up a water-bottling plant.

Councillors said they had been kept in the dark and had no say on the deal, which is understood to have been led by mayor Angus McKay.

Some still don't know who the buyer is or what country they're from, an issue one councillor said would likely be raised with the mayor at a meeting on Thursday.

The sealed process follows a failed deal several years ago, in which the council tried to sell Lot 9 and its valuable water abstraction consent to a Chinese buyer.

The current deal, expected to be finalised in June, is with a different buyer.

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The council is selling the 10-hectare Lot 9 in its business estate, along with resource consent to extract 45 litres of water per second from aquifers beneath the town.

The consent was approved in 2011 for commercial usage by a "wet industry" such as water-bottling.

Ashburton mayor Angus McKay, right, with council chief executive Andrew Dalziel.

Ashburton mayor Angus McKay, right, with council chief executive Andrew Dalziel.

Online rumours speculated that Oravida was the buyer, but the company said on Wednesday it was not involved.

Debate about the deal, and broader issues around water ownership, have continued nationwide.

On Wednesday, it was revealed that a group comprising prominent businessmen was selling a property with resource consent to extract water just 15 kilometres away.

Online listings described the property as an "outstanding opportunity for any major water/soft drink supplier or investors/developers to take advantage of the ever increasing demand for bottled water, both nationally and internationally."

The listings have since been removed.

It led to questions in Parliament on Wednesday, when Green MP Catherine Delahunty asked the Government whether such property sales amounted to selling water itself.

Chris Finlayson, on behalf of Environment Minister Nick Smith, said the Government's position was that no-one owned water and the Ashburton situation did not require a change.

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"It's well acknowledged by this Government that no one owns water in this country. That is the position going back many years, across administrations," he said.

It echoed comments made by Prime Minister John Key on Tuesday, in which he maintained that no one owns water.

He said that a water-bottling plant would provide jobs and support the local economy.

Both Labour and the Green Party argue that overseas companies should be charged a fee to use what is a public resource.


Ashburton resident Jen Branje, who has led community opposition to the deal, has organised a public protest next week against the sale.

It will be attended by Delahunty and various water experts.

McKay had offered to meet Branje, but she declined, saying all comments about the deal should be made publicly.

"If they'd been transparent, they wouldn't have got this backlash. That has been the biggest response – people are pissed off about the deception."

She was pleased that the Ashburton situation had been so widely discussed.

"It's become such a nationwide thing. It is something that we as Kiwis need to address – we've got to get this issue under control. 

"We don't have enough of it [water]. What sort of legacy are we leaving our children? Dried up, barren land."

 - Stuff

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