Are dam consents stopping farmers from growing more food?

Chris Nicholson says consent and administrative minefields means the couple missed a number of opportunities to build a dam in summer in time for winter rainfall.
Gerhard Uys/Stuff
Chris Nicholson says consent and administrative minefields means the couple missed a number of opportunities to build a dam in summer in time for winter rainfall.

Waikato potato and onion growers Chris and Vikki Nicholson spent more than $100,000 towards administration and consent costs for a water storage dam. Despite these costs, they had not managed to begin building it.

The Nicholsons said they had identified a gully on their farm that received runoff water as an ideal location to build because it was not suitable for growing crops, and they were using it to graze cattle.

The need for water during drought periods, and their decision to not touch water from the aquifer via a bore meant a dam was a way to future-proof the farm for impending drier times.

Vikki Nicholson said they knew that the 60,000 cubic-metre dam would need engineering work to prove it was failsafe, and they knew there would be considerable administration involved. But the process to get consents involved so many parties that costs quickly escalated. It also forced them to employ a project manager.

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“There are so many components that have to be considered before you can actually put a spade into the ground,” she said.

“The council is afraid to sign anything off until it is peer-reviewed by experts. This balloons the costs. You need engineering reports, building consents, a fish expert, you need iwi approval, and environmental impact assessments,” she added.

“If one process takes too long, then the consent for another one expires and you have to begin again.”

The Nicholsons said costs seemed to not balance the amount of work undertaken. A fish expert charged them $6500 for work that took an hour-and-a-half, and a report generated from a template.

Because the gully where the dam would be built was being grazed, a land-use change was also on the cards. As a result, the removal of plants had to be mitigated on another part of the property. Though they could see the necessity of this, it just adds additional costs.

The Nicholsons want to build a dam in this gully.
Gerhard Uys/Stuff
The Nicholsons want to build a dam in this gully.

Chris Nicholson said councils and the government looked for answers to water storage, but were not willing to subsidise any costs that farmers incurred to reduce water takes.

The Nicholsons stuck with the project because they believed in a few decades, when water scarcity was a larger issue than now, the dam would be an asset to the farm.

“The water would mean we could double our yields through irrigation. We would have water available and won’t have to wait for rain. We also limit ourselves to what we plant. If we have water available we can plant different crops,” Chris Nicholson said.

Ben Noll, meteorologist at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) said as temperatures increased because of climate change, it may lead to increases in atmospheric water demand, which leads to drier soils, more water stress for vegetation and lower water flows in rivers and streams.

These conditions would be a leading cause of increases in droughts by the end of the century. Conditions would also mean possible late droughts which could lengthen the risk periods, Noll said.

Niwa research showed that with precipitation patterns changing, the frequency of consecutive droughts may decrease in some areas but increase in others, Noll said.

Overall, the national trend for back-to-back droughts would increase, Noll said.

Waikato Regional Council regional consents manager Amy Robinson said the regional rules and regulations farmers needed to follow to build a water storage dam depended on the exact nature of what was proposed.

The Waikato Regional Plan contained rules relating to dams. Depending on the specific circumstances, a consent may be required or a dam may be permitted. A permitted dam does not need a consent if specific criteria set out in the regional plan were met.

For example, small off-stream dams could possibly be permitted under the plan.

On the need for the Nicholsons to employ the services of a fish expert, Robinson said the Resource Management Act (RMA) placed the onus on the party who wanted to build a dam to show that the effects of the damn on the environment were less than minor.

This included the potential effects on fish passage. It was not uncommon that specialist technical assessments were needed, Robinson said.

During a consent, the Waikato Regional Council had to determine both the effects on the environment of a proposal and if anyone was likely to be adversely affected by the proposal.

More farmers feel consents are curbing food production.

Leaderbrand chief executive Richard Burke says farmers are forced into a position where they need advice from lawyers just to go about the business of farming.
Supplied
Leaderbrand chief executive Richard Burke says farmers are forced into a position where they need advice from lawyers just to go about the business of farming.

Richard Burke, vegetable grower from Gisborne and chief executive of Leaderbrand, said changes to the Resource Management Act had complicated a previously simple process.

District councils had to interpret new regulations and needed to consult experts and lawyers to be sure they complied. This escalated costs for growers who needed water consents, Burke said.

“We are forced into a position where we have to get advice and wait for lawyers to make decisions,” Burke said.

“Central government does not want to be liable and pushes decisions to regional councils who are liable if they misinterpret something. They get legal advice and farmers pay the cost.”

Niwa Meteorologist Ben Noll says the chances of back-to-back droughts in some regions are becoming more likely.
NIWA/Supplied
Niwa Meteorologist Ben Noll says the chances of back-to-back droughts in some regions are becoming more likely.

Jason Thomas, potato grower from Pukekawa in Waikato said he had spent over $40,000 on consents for an earth built water storage dam, and then decided to pull the plug as there was no clear path through the administrative hurdles.

He then drilled an exploratory bore because the administrative costs for the dam had already surpassed the costs for the bore. He was lucky and struck water.

Reuben Fraser, Bay of Plenty Regional Council consents manager, said regional councils were responsible for ensuring dams met the requirements of both the Building Act and the RMA.

“This means that potentially there are two types of consents that may be required to build, a resource consent or a building consent,” Fraser said.

The Building Act ensured that dams were built to meet the standards set in the Building Code. The RMA dealt with controlling the effects building a dam can have on the environment, including on life and habitats in streams, and the disruption of the natural flow of water, he said.

Farmers say having access to water from dams is a way to future-proof farms at a time that the changing climate means drier times are ahead.
Robyn Edie/Stuff
Farmers say having access to water from dams is a way to future-proof farms at a time that the changing climate means drier times are ahead.

“Dams that have a height of 4 metres and the capacity to hold 20,000 or more cubic metres volume of water were considered large dams and required a building consent prior to beginning work.

“The costs associated with construction and operation have been the main barriers,” Fraser said.

“There are many farmers with consents for dams that have not been particularly complex such as off-stream dams.

“There is also more pressure on our resources with water take limits neared or reached, and new legalisation such as the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater adds additional complexity for dams that are located in gullies where “natural wetlands’ are also normally located,” Fraser said.