21 Apr 2017

Gold rush water permits overhaul threatens Central Otago economy

From Morning Report, 7:25 am on 21 April 2017

An RNZ Insight investigation by our Otago-Southland reporter, Ian Telfer, has found irrigators increasingly fear their water takes will be cut for environmental reasons, and with it their livelihoods.

The mayor of New Zealand's driest region is warning that overhauling water permits granted in the Otago gold rush could jeopardise its economic future.

Alarm is growing on Central Otago's farms and orchards as they begin trying to replace hundreds of irrigation rights granted in the 1800s which all expire in October 2021.

This water race in Central Otago was cut into the hill in 1877 to provide water for goldmine sluicing.

This water race in Central Otago was cut into the hill in 1877 to provide water for goldmine sluicing. Photo: RNZ Ian Telfer

The clock on Central Otago's century-old irrigation permits has been ticking for the past 26 years, but there is not much to show for it.

Now, with four years left to the 2021 deadline, alarm is spreading.

The mayor of Central Otago, Tim Cadogan says the switch from the old permits to new resource consents is the biggest issue facing Central Otago at the moment.

The more than 400 so-called deemed permits which underpin the district's economy have to be replaced with modern water permits by 1 October 2021 or their irrigation stops.

Mr Cadogan says the region cannot afford for that to happen.

"You've definitely got environmental considerations to tack into account. Absolutely.

"But our region relies on the farmer, the wine grower, the tourist operator, and on the fruit grower. And if that balance is out of whack I'm really concerned for our regions economy."

An old water right

An old water right Photo: RNZ Ian Telfer

The process is being led by the Otago regional council which is having to bring in environmental bottom lines for irrigation for the first time.

But the council faces an uprising as it tries to set minimum flow levels on all the region's major rivers and streams, and end their massive over-allocation.

The director of an Alexandra orchard Leaning Rock Cherries, Cathy Stanton, says the proposals will restrict growth and people will be walking off their farms.

"I think they've got horse-blinkers on. They can't see what is actually going to happen to the valley and the community at large if the water is restricted."

But the council's director of policy and resource planning, Fraser McRae, says the solution is in farmers' own hands.

"We don't want it to come down to squabbles and fights in the court. We want to be able to try and get this transition to happen as efficiently as possible.

"Get your application in early and provide the information that's required so that we can process that as quickly as possible - and so that you've got certainty around going forward."

The council says it is confident it can deliver better streams and more efficient irrigation with a bit of goodwill on all sides.