Editorial: Do we have to wait for the new ECan council to enforce water rules?

Why isn't Environment Canterbury clamping down on water abusers whose actions are reflecting on responsible irrigators too?
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Why isn't Environment Canterbury clamping down on water abusers whose actions are reflecting on responsible irrigators too?

For responsible irrigators, environmentalists and all those concerned about the region's water, Environment Canterbury's approach to enforcement appears extremely puzzling.

More evidence has been uncovered showing the regional council could take a tougher line on those who continue to act unlawfully - either by apparently taking hundreds of millions of litres of water more than they are entitled to or by failing to measure what they use.

In March it was reported more than 350 water consent holders had significantly broken the rules in 2014-15, but only nine of the 117 abatement and infringement notices issued - down 40 per cent on the previous year - were for taking too much water.

Official information collected between 2013 and 2014 and released to Forest & Bird by ECan now shows how badly some of these consent holders have plundered water not belonging to them. Only a few were fined and none were prosecuted for those actions. Also, because 500 large-scale water users are still not measuring their takes, the exact amount of water taken illegally remains a mystery.

The data also highlights some are reporting inaccurate data, that water has been taken during low-flow restriction periods in drought-like conditions and that some users have broken the rules during consecutive years and ignored threats of action from the council.

ECan's soft-pedalling on the issue - at least in these years - is a concern. The council promised in March it would continue targeting water consents this year but has also said it would rather persuade consent holders to be compliant rather than take the harsher enforcement path.

Education around the issues is certainly important but so is enforcement. There can be extenuating circumstances and in some cases it is probably better for people to be reminded of the rules and the bigger picture than be frog-marched into prosecution. However, it has to be said that taking hundreds of millions of litres more water than consented does seem a pretty clear breach of the regulations.

The Green Party believes ECan is failing to safeguard Canterbury's rivers. Environment spokeswoman Eugenie Sage - a former ECan councillor - says Canterbury is becoming like the "Wild West" compared to other parts of New Zealand, where regional councils monitor a much higher proportion of consent holders.

In its defence, ECan says the 5900 water takes it has to oversee is three times more than in any other region. More than 90 per cent of those that require meters are now being measured and reported, and if those who have not installed meters - about 500 consent holders - do not do so urgently, they will receive infringement notices and be fined.

The council also says a very high level of evidence is needed to successful pursue a prosecution. The preferred approach since the requirement for meters was introduced in 2012 had been to work with consent holders and irrigators to get "the right systems in place".

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We believe a harder line should be taken to ensure responsible water users are not tarred with the same brush as offenders. ECan needs to ensure it is seen to be acting now. We must ensure a tough line is taken to protect our most precious asset.

 - Stuff

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