Foreign firm allowed to bottle millions of litres of water a day from Christchurch aquifers
A consent allowing more than 1.5 billion litres of water to be extracted from aquifers beneath Christchurch each year will likely be used for water bottling, documents show.
The Belfast plant would be the second-largest water-bottling operation in the country in terms of allocated usage.
It comes amid political pressure over the lightly-regulated water-bottling industry, which allows companies access to large quantities of water at little or no cost.
Opposition parties have pressured the Government to put a price on water, as have water campaigners who delivered a 15,000-strong petition to Parliament requesting a moratorium on water exports.
More than 70 such companies nationwide are known to be bottling water, many of which are in the South Island.
The Government has referred the issue to a technical advisory group, which is due to report back at the end of the year.
The Belfast site has permission to take 4.32 million litres of water per day, amounting to more than 1.5b litres a year. The amount is equivalent to the daily water usage of 12,000 people.
The consent was granted to the Kaputone Wool Scour for its site on Station Rd in 1997. It is unlikely to have used much of the water it was allocated.
The wool scour closed in 2015 with most of its operation relocating to a plant in Timaru early this year.
Official records show the valuable water consent has been transferred to Cloud Ocean Water Ltd, a company registered in March. It was registered with the business classification for manufacturing mineral water.
It raises the prospect that a little-used water allocation may soon be fully realised: If the entire allocation is used, the plant will use more water each day than the suburb of Riccarton, the city's largest.
Cloud Ocean Water is majority owned by Ling Hai Group, a China-based company with broad interests, including the Castlebrae farm in Marlborough, which it converted to a winery focused on exporting to China.
It can take and use groundwater from a bore 33 metres deep, effectively the same method used for the public drinking-water supply.
It will likely pay nothing, or a negligible amount, to use the water.
Because the consent has been granted, Environment Canterbury (ECan) – which issued the consent in 1997 – cannot stop it from being transferred. It can only be revoked if there is an environmental effect or a regional rule overrode it.
Christchurch ECan councillor Lan Pham said it highlighted a carelessness towards water allocation.
She was not specifically concerned about water bottling, but said the way water was allocated did not always prioritise public use over private gain.
"My concern is any big extractive use of a precious, public resource," she said.
"It's just symptomatic of our use of water. We have taken water for granted and as we put pressure on our resources we're kind of waking up to the fact that they're not used in the most efficient ways or ways that protect the public good over private gains."
She said water would become increasingly precious due to global climate change and it needed to be used more thoughtfully.
"It does seem we're not being particularly proactive with looking at how we're using our water, who is using our water and how it could best be used."
Canterbruy aquifers reached record lows last summer, causing some streams to dry up for the first time in decades.
Christchurch residents were asked to conserve water, using methods such as alternating the days they water their gardens and taking shorter showers.
The consented water volume at Kaputone is large relative to the city, but pales in comparison to the largest consents in the region.
Several consents – primarily granted to irrigation schemes – allow combined access to trillions of litres of water each year.
In 2014-15, the largest single consented water user, the Rangitata Diversion Race, used 17 times as much water as all of Christchurch city, ECan data shows.
In regards to the Belfast consent, ECan consents planning manager Phil Burge said the council had no choice but to approve the transfer due to a provision under the Resource Management Act.
ECan had not received a formal pre-application for advice regarding the consent, but Burge confirmed water bottling would be allowed as the consent stood.
He said the council's concern was the amount of water actually used and any environmental effects, not what the water was used for.
Attempts to contact the Ling Hai Group and its directors were unsuccessful. Law firm Bell Gully, which has represented the company in its past dealings, did not return a request for comment.
Water bottling has been a sensitive topic in Canterbury. The Ashburton District Council's attempt to sell Lot 9 of its business estate, which came with a water consent similar in size to Kaputone, was widely criticised.
A planned sale to a water bottling company did not go through.
On the West Coast, a group of locals have received the necessary permissions to build a water export facility beneath a national park.
Okuru Enterprises is allowed to pump 800 million litres of water each month, making it the largest scheme water bottling scheme in the country if it goes ahead.