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Published: 2011-12-01 00:00:00

Waikato Regional Council says it is pleased an Environment Court ruling has confirmed the final shape of the council’s Variation 6 policy aimed at protecting and maintaining water resources in the region.

Variation 6 to the Waikato Regional Plan will progressively introduce new policies and rules for allocating and using water in the region. This new system was developed in response to growing demand for water from various sectors and the need to keep enough water in rivers for environmental reasons.

A just-released court decision – which praised the participatory policy development process the council followed - has confirmed the provisions of Variation 6 after hearing from the council and key stakeholders, including power companies and the agriculture sector. The decision, in part, reflects the agreement that came about during negotiations over the wording of the policies and rules as part of court proceedings brought against the original version of Variation 6.

The council’s catchment management programme manager David Speirs said confirmation of the final shape of Variation 6 meant the council could now get on with implementing the policies and rules.

“It’s great that – pending any appeals on points of law – we now have much greater certainty over the policies and rules going forward.

“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. It’s been estimated 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.

“Implementing Variation 6 is hugely important because pressure on water resources has increased significantly in recent years. For example, the area of land being irrigated has nearly doubled in the last ten years. Water is a finite resource and, in some places, is already fully allocated. Variation 6 seeks to strike a balance between managing the adverse environmental effects of taking and using water and giving people the ability to use water in an environmentally sustainable way.”

Mr Speirs said the new rules focus on ensuring there is enough water left in waterways to protect aquatic life and provide for recreation, whilst ensuring domestic, municipal, agricultural and industrial needs are met as far as possible.

Variation 6 sets allocation limits for all rivers and streams, and their minimum environmental flows (defined as the least amount of flow necessary to sustain aquatic life, recreation and preferential uses).

After agreements with the agricultural sector, dairy farms will generally be allowed to take 15 cubic metres of water a day per certificate of title for dairy shed water but takes above this will require a resource consent. The implementation of the resource consenting process will be staged over the next several years. Farmers will have till 1 January 2015 at the latest to apply for the necessary resource consents. It is estimated 3500 farmers will need to get a resource consent under the new rules.

“Now that we have the court decision, we plan to develop a resource consent implementation strategy in conjunction with agriculture industry stakeholders. We will communicate to farmers the details of when they need to apply for resource consent to take more than 15 cubic metres a day for dairy shed water,” said Mr Speirs.

He noted that existing “extra” takes above 15 cubic metres a day will generally be “grandparented” (as at October 2008 levels). Under this provision of Variation 6, farmers will generally get the grandparented “extra” amount requested as long as they apply for a resource consent and meet the resource consent conditions. These conditions will include riparian management plans aimed at preventing sediment, effluent and nutrients from getting into waterways so as to help protect water quality in the region.

The court has also allowed for more water takes between Taupo and Karapiro than was originally proposed, which may benefit farmers and other significant users.

Variation 6’s requirements will complement a broader regional strategy, currently under development, which is aimed at better protecting the health of the Waikato’s waterways.