By the numbers: ECan's 'relaxed' monitoring regime leaves thousands unchecked
Environment Canterbury (ECan) does less monitoring and is less likely to punish rule-breakers than any other regional authority, data shows.
Canterbury has been called a "wild west", and some critics say ECan isn't doing enough to protect the region's resources.
The regional council said the numbers did not indicate the work it did to manage environmental risks. A "sea-change" was happening among farmers who were improving their practices, it said.
ECan was criticised this week after Forest & Bird released data showing millions of litres of unconsented water had been taken without permission. Most offenders were not punished.
* Millions of litres of water illegally taken: Is ECan doing enough?
* Editorial: Do we have to wait for the new ECan council to enforce water rules?
* Irrigators are Canterbury's biggest rule-breakers
National data, released by the Ministry for the Environment, showed that in 2014-15 ECan did the least monitoring, found the most rule-breakers and was the least likely to take enforcement action of all regional authorities.
ECan gave one in 10 rule-breakers an abatement or infringement notice.
Auckland, which has fewer consent holders, punished nine times as many people.
Taranaki, one tenth the size of ECan, punished almost three times as many.
ECan also had among the lowest number of monitoring and compliance staff per number of consents.
The ministry collected the data, from all 15 regional authorities except Waikato regional council, to show how each had implemented the Resource Management Act.
Canterbury has 20,500 resource consents subject to monitoring – the most of any region. The closest is Auckland, with 17,800.
While Auckland monitors 82 per cent of its consents (14,400), ECan monitors 16 per cent (3200).
Most councils monitored well above 50 per cent of consents. Some monitored 100 per cent.
ECan monitored fewer consents than the Northland regional council, which is one eighth its size.
There was an explanation for that, ECan said. Its approach was a targeted one, focussing on consents most likely to cause problems, chief executive Bill Bayfield said.
Some high-risk consents were monitored several times a year, while many low-risk consents did not need checking.
"Many of our consents, such as septic tanks, pose little threat to the environment and so are not monitored," Bayfield said.
"Those of medium or high risk are monitored every year."
Of the 16 per cent of consents ECan monitored, half broke rules. For most other councils, less than a quarter it monitored were rule-breakers.
Commissioner David Caygill said enforcement was not always the right approach. In many cases, ECan favoured education to change behaviour.
"Air pollution is an area where we have tended to try and change people's behaviour by knocking on their doors, leaving a pamphlet and having a conversation, typically observing that we don't have to go back a second time," he said.
"There are other areas, perhaps, where it's sensible we take less of an education approach and look to a stricter enforcement approach."
Enforcement depended on the individual circumstance.
"I think ECan is right to say, let's look at the particular subject and say what's the right approach in each instance."
Green MP and former ECan councillor Eugenie Sage said rule-breakers were undeterred by ECan's "relaxed" approach.
"Canterbury is fast becoming a wild west, with too many environmentally risky activities going unchecked by the council," she said
"ECan needs to be much more active in ensuring conditions are enforced. If the councils don't enforce them, no wonder environmental quality is continuing to decline."
By 2018, 5000 farms in Canterbury would have Farm Environment Plans in place — effectively guides for managing and identifying environmental risks.
The independently-audited plans would give farmers the information needed to comply with the rules, Bayfield said.
"These Farm Environment Plans . . . identify environmental risks and provide farmers with information on how to improve farm management.
"We've found that most farmers, when they have information about what they need to do, take action."
He said that it was more important than number of consents monitored, as most people followed the rules when they had all of the information needed to do so.
"In Canterbury a sea-change is underway in farming practice, as farmers learn what is required under both government regulation and the Canterbury Water Management Strategy and are making changes to manage their farm's environmental risks."