Horizons Regional Council loses court case over farm runoff enforcement
Environmentalists are claiming a victory after legal action found a regional council has not been doing enough to keep streams and rivers clean.
Horizons Regional Council was taken to court for not having a strong enough stance on farm runoff into waterways.
It has now been forced to temporarily call a halt to approving and processing consents.
The council was taken to the Environment Court by Fish and Game and the Environmental Defence Society in September.
They claimed that Horizons was going too easy on farms by allowing for high levels of nitrogen to be discharged under the enforcement of the One Plan.
In a finding released on Tuesday, the court has sided with the two environmental groups, sharing their concerns about declining water quality.
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Horizons has conceded it made mistakes, but says water quality has been improving.
The One Plan is the council's own set of rules and regulations for managing the Manawatu-Whanganui region's quality of freshwater, air and land.
EDS chief executive Gary Taylor said the decision had "significant ramifications" for regional councils across the country.
"It has confirmed that simply because managing within freshwater limits has its difficulties, it doesn't mean councils can make up alternative approaches.
"We are relying on regional councils to do their job properly in implementing the freshwater reforms."
The plan originally cost between $9 million and $10m to develop. That process took 10 years of consultation, court battles and rewrites before it was signed off in 2014.
The court found that the potential environmental impact of the council's actions were "very significant".
It stated there were a significant number of consents issued that were involved.
The court said economic consequences were not a reason to "manipulate or pervert plan implementation".
"In fact, it emphasises the importance of consistent and transparent plan implementation to ensure those consequences are evenly and fairly distributed."
The court accepted there were genuine concerns that the processes being followed risked allowing a decline in water quality.
Horizons failed to include a trajectory of how restricted discretionary consents would reduce nitrogen leaching.
"The declarations are required to protect the integrity of the One Plan and the community's confidence in council decision-making."
Horizons chairman Bruce Gordon acknowledged the decision.
"We respect that we may not have got it completely right.
"However, no-one has said that we're not on the right path when it comes to water quality improvement. Some groups have simply indicated that they would like to see faster implementation."
Gordon said the council would need time to read the court's 81-page findings, so it could fully understand the outcome.
New consent applications would be suspended for 12 weeks, including those currently in the system for processing.
Gordon defended the work of farmers.
"Through regulatory and non-regulatory measures farmers have been making good progress in nutrient management and environmental outcomes.
"We respect that farmers will be looking for certainty as we move forward. Staff will continue to be in contact with them as we work through this next phase."
Federated Farmers Tararua provincial president Clint Worthington was concerned the decision would lead to "costly red tape and lengthier processes".
"Which just means more time, more cost and more stress for farmers."
Worthington was hopeful the council would still work with farmers to improve water quality.
Fish and Game and EDS will be discussing the decision with Horizons.