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Published: 2011-08-10 00:00:00

It is now expected to be late this year before the Environment Court rules on Waikato Regional Council’s proposed Variation 6 to the regional plan, which seeks to better manage the growing pressure on the Waikato’s fresh water resources.

The scale of the issues involved is huge. Consumptive demand for surface water in the Waikato is 1.36 million cubic metres of water a day, while consumptive demand for ground water is 430,000 cubic metres a day. Every drop flowing out to sea from the Waikato River has been removed from the natural river channel and used in some way at least seven times before it reaches the ocean.

A five month court hearing on Variation 6 was completed just last week before Judge Whiting. The council’s barrister Jim Milne commented at the conclusion of the proceedings that it was the most complex Environment Court case he had been involved in due to the number of parties, the complexity of the issues and the technical nature of the proceedings.

Variation 6 seeks to strike a balance between managing the adverse effects of ground and surface water use while maintaining reasonable access to, and maximising the sustainable use of, those resources. 

Pressure on water resources generally in the Waikato has significantly increased in recent years.

“In a number of catchments there is no longer sufficient water to provide new allocation of water with a high level of reliability without one use adversely affecting another’s use or without significant effects on the environment,” said river and catchment services programme manager David Speirs.

In some catchments increased demand has led to direct competition between those wanting water for domestic and municipal water supply, electricity generation, agricultural development and a range of other uses.

“As a consequence there is increasing need for a robust policy framework which guides decision making regarding the most appropriate allocation of limited water resources.  Variation 6 seeks to provide that guidance,” said Mr Speirs.

Variation 6 explicitly recognises there is a limited amount of water available for the full range of uses and seeks to set appropriate limits as to how much water can be taken out of rivers, streams and groundwater resources on a catchment by catchment basis.

It also sets rules and policies which would control to some extent how that water is to be distributed between competing interests, how it can be used and how water permits can subsequently be transferred between users to ensure the water that is available for use is being used efficiently and providing the best outcomes for the region.

At the beginning of the court process there were 37 appeals in opposition to various parts of Variation 6 with many parties arguing that more water should be made available for taking out of rivers and streams or that more of the allocation should be available to their sector than to others.

In particular, much of the hearing focused on the competing interests of the dairy sector wanting water for future dairy intensification in the Upper Waikato River and electricity generators wanting to retain water in the river to ensure reliable electricity supply. 

Mr Speirs said the regional council  has attempted, through Variation 6, to provide for the protection of both existing electricity generation on the river, and all current agricultural uses. 

“However, this approach generally does not provide for future growth of agriculture in the Waikato River catchment above Karapiro Dam and this was one of the few substantial issues that remained unresolved at the close of the hearing.”

Judge Whiting has indicated his decision will be released in November.

“We will await with great interest his findings on this important new policy concerning the allocation of water assets in our region,” said Mr Speirs.

The council’s closing submissions to the court are available at http://www.waikatoregion.govt.nz/assets/PageFiles/7062/n1945002_Closing_Submissions.pdf.