Wednesday, April 24, 2024

ORC reviewing Manuherikia River advice

Neal Wallace
Water users have welcomed the Otago Regional Council’s (ORC) decision to check the robustness of its science before setting minimum flow limits in the Manuherikia River. Manuherikia Catchment Group chair Anna Gillespie says the decision confirms the view of users that there are significant gaps in the council’s science.
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Water users have welcomed the Otago Regional Council’s (ORC) decision to check the robustness of its science before setting minimum flow limits in the Manuherikia River.

Manuherikia Catchment Group chair Anna Gillespie says the decision confirms the view of users that there are significant gaps in the council’s science.

She is not holding back the frustration of water users who have spent $1 million on the issue so far and is devoting two days a week to their cause.

“There is a bunch of science from the Otago Regional Council that has not been peer-reviewed and is full of errors,” Gillespie said.

Those shortcomings include measuring a limited number of ecological indicators and extrapolating over the river’s 85km length and condition of the 18% of the river, which flows through the most-populated stretch.

The review means councillors have postponed consideration of a staff recommendation to more than double the minimum river flow from 900 litres/sec in stages, starting with a lift to 1200l/sec by 2023, 1500l/sec by 2030, and 2000l/sec by 2037.

This is part of a process to replace by 2023 mining rights allowing water extraction from rivers dating back to the Otago gold rush, with minimum flows.

Council chair Andrew Noone says the council vote showed they need assurances the science behind any decision was robust.

They have requested a peer review of the hydrological modelling, commissioned a new habitat model survey and testing of technical evidence from the Manuherikia Catchment Group on the impact of the new flow on river tributaries.

Noone says the two habitat studies submitted to council had contradictory conclusions, due to one following a flood.

Gillespie says a challenge for water users has been the high turnover of council staff creating inconsistency.

In the months leading up to the council decision, a senior council scientist and the leader of the technical advisory group left their positions.

The decision by councillors to review scientific data, passed six votes to five, has provoked a rebuke from four, including deposed chair Marian Hobbs.

They have written to Environment Minister David Parker asking him to intervene, alleging conflicts of interest among some councillors, predetermination of the decision and unnecessary delays.

In a statement Parker says he wants to better understand the points raised before commenting further.

“The underlying issue, the intersection between deemed permits to take water and the minimum flow for the river, has been a responsibility of the ORC to resolve since the Resource Management Act was passed 30 years ago,” Parker said.

“I do not have a view on what the minimum flow should be, but I do expect the regional council to meet its responsibilities without further delay.” 

Noone described the split vote among councillors as democracy and robust debate, but he also disagreed with the allegations made to Parker.

“I’d like to think he will want us to knuckle down and get on with the job, that is what the minister will be wanting,” Noone said.

Gillespie says the Environment Court has already sided with farmers in rejecting the council’s proposed limits for the Lindis River and now faces issues with the Manuherikia.

In 2019 the court agreed with the Lindis Catchment Group and set a minimum flow of 550 litres/sec and a primary allocation of 1640l/sec, rejecting limits proposed by council-appointed commissioners of 900l/sec and a primary allocation of 1200l/sec.

Noone says the council process is to determine minimum flows for Otago rivers, which will become operative when the Land and Water Plan is notified in 2023.

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