Race to irrigate behind ECan move

The release of confidential documents has for the first time shed light on reasons behind the Government's reluctance to restore full democracy to Canterbury regional politics.

The Government suspended democracy and restricted legal action in Canterbury to protect an agriculture boom potentially worth more than $5 billion to the national economy, documents reveal.

It feared the economic boom promised by Canterbury irrigation could be in jeopardy unless Environment Canterbury (ECan) was "stable, effective and efficient", says a Government report on August 27.

The economic impact was one of five key reasons given for axing regional elections in favour of extending the terms of commissioners.

Last month, Local Government Minister David Carter and Environment Minister Amy Adams said ECan elections would not be held until 2016 despite a Government promise to hold regional council elections next year. Instead, a ministerial review of ECan's governance arrangements will be held in 2014.

Government-appointed commissioners have been in charge of the regional council since democratically elected councillors were sacked in 2010. According to the August report, the value of production in Canterbury is predicted to increase from $1000 to $7000 a hectare once irrigation plans are implemented.

The plan aims to almost double the 450,000ha irrigated in Canterbury, creating a $5 billion economic boom.

A separate Government document, disclosed to The Press under the Official Information Act, says the protection of Canterbury's economic contribution and its future growth were a "key consideration" for suspending democracy.

Irrigation New Zealand chief executive Andrew Curtis said irrigation and the environment would have been threatened if the commissioners' terms had not been extended. The Canterbury Water Management Strategy has an end target of 850,000ha within the next 50 years.

He said there was now about 450,000ha to 500,000ha of irrigated land, but 250,000ha more in the next 20 years was achievable.

Curtis said the commissioners were "very focused on achieving the targets" within the strategy. "Having the commissioners in place for a further three years means in the first instance we can get on with setting limits. This will sort the environmental issues over time."

In keeping the commissioners, the Government also agreed to continue restricting legal challenges against the strategy and its follow-on regulatory frameworks, such as the Land & Water Regional Plan, to points of law.

A Government document, disclosed to The Press under the Official Information Act, reveals that this needs to be continued because there is a "strong risk" people could revert to appealing to the Environment Court.

Local Government Minister David Carter said efficient management of Canterbury water was crucial to New Zealand's economic growth potential. Canterbury had 70 per cent of New Zealand's fresh water resource, and 34 per cent of its hydro-generation capacity.

"Rebuilding Christchurch and the wider Canterbury economy after the earthquakes has brought into sharper focus the need for a competent and consistent approach to planning for vital infrastructure for the future. The Canterbury rebuild and the effective management of water resources are vital to the long-term interests of the region, and of New Zealand."

Federated Farmers Mid-Canterbury president Chris Allen supported the commissioners staying on because they had built relationships with the rural community and progressed water plans.

Green Party environment spokeswoman Eugenie Sage said extending the commissioners' terms was designed to "accelerate and promote" irrigation development.

"National does not want to risk elected councillors protecting rivers and aquifers and obstructing irrigation development by strong regional rules on water takes and nutrient limits."

She said the ECan Bill 2012 restricted access to justice by outlawing appeals to the Environment Court.

The Press