Friday, December 1, 2023

New water rules won’t overwhelm

Neal Wallace
Otago farmers will have some awkward discussions on water use in coming years but new Otago Regional Council chairwoman Marian Hobbs is promising they will not be overwhelmed.
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Hobbs has been council chairwoman for eight weeks.

The former Labour government Environment Minister says in addition to implementing numerous Government policies the council has been instructed by the Government to address freshwater management planning, which it considers deficient.

That followed a review of council processes ordered by Environment Minister David Parker who was concerned at the lack of progress in implementing the National Policy Statement on Freshwater before 356 historic mining privileges or deemed water permits and another 180 standard water permits expire in October 2021.

Hobbs says in addition to notification of other council plans and policies that will have to be done along with implementing Government policies on managing freshwater, high class soils and biodiversity.

To help the council grapple with those planning demands it will look to Environment Canterbury for guidance, given it is well advanced in implementing its various planning documents.

She has also had offers of help from the Environment Court and Ministry for the Environment.

The council’s initial focus will be on renewing the 68 deemed permits in the Manuherikia catchment in Central Otago. They will be rolled over for five years and renewals will be discussed based on water use, not paper allocations.

Once they are settled attention will turn to permit holders in the Arrow and Cardrona catchments.

“There are going to be some awkward conversations.

“Our job is to actively manage it for the whole community but firstly for the good of the catchment.” 

She urges farmers not to be overwhelmed and promises council staff will work alongside farmers to manage the transition.

She recalled the deluge of change when Tomorrows Schools was introduced when she was the principal of Avonside Girls’ High School in Christchurch and says the only way to cope was to tackle it term by term.

In farming terms, she says that means tackling these challenges season by season.

“If I’d looked at the whole lot of stuff coming at me I’d have turned tail and run.”

Part of her plans to ease the transition will see the region split in to 11 catchment groups, each with a dedicated councillor and council staff.

The groups will have representatives from interested parties who will help manage the resource and expectations.

“There will be a political look at this at the same time we have scientific, factual stuff.”

The council has traditionally adopted permissive consents, where limits and conditions are set but how consent holders achieve or stay within those limits is up to them.

That is set to change.

Hobbs says there is insufficient monitoring of the environmental effects caused by those consents until a problem arises so the council plans to impose more regulation and greater monitoring to prevent such degradation.

A new generation of council staff is being employed and she is confident they understand farming systems.

“I get the impression they understand the issues, that they are definitely not bookbound but, as are farmers, they are scientists who have to be evidence-led.”

Hobbs says farmers claim they have little or minimal impact on the environment but she wants to see evidence stocking rates, fertiliser use and nutrient loss are being managed to support the claims.

“I want proof,” she says.

Asked if Otago farmers have done and good or bad job managing the land, Hobbs says it differs between catchments.

The Pomahaka, which runs through west and south Otago has issues but she praised the efforts of the local catchment group in addressing them.

Water has transformed Central Otago from a dryland, predominantly wool-producing region to one able to run higher stock rates, which has created some conflict and environmental and landscape issues.

As a former environment minister Hobbs initiated water reforms such as riparian fencing but 18 years on, what she calls inaction has now caught up with the sector through poor water quality.

Her return to political life was driven by a desire to complete unfinished business with the environment and challenges such as climate change and water quality and ultimately to make the world a better place for her grandchildren.

It was also to fill a void left by the recent death of her partner.

As a Labour Party politician Hobbs held multiple ministerial portfolios including environment from 1999 to 2005 and education from 2001 to 2004.

Before her political career Hobbs was a high school teacher in Christchurch, serving as principal at Avonside Girls’ High School from 1989-1996 before embarking on her political career.

Hobbs, now 71, retired from politics in 2008 and after a stint working for the Ministry for the Environment went to Britain where she worked in the education sector.

On returning to NZ she moved to Dunedin because of her love of tramping and the outdoors but last year decided to stand for the council believing she has something to offer.

Councillors elected her chairwoman in October, replacing Stephen Woodhead who retired.

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