Iwi closely watches govt moves on water ownership

7:11 am on 22 March 2016

The debate over water rights is heating up as the government takes its plans for reform around the country.


File photo Photo: Supplied

The government maintains the line that "no one owns the water", which is something iwi leaders are watching carefully as a consultation process on water reforms takes place.

To the west of Whangarei is Porotī Springs; its waters flow down the Waipao Stream from Whatitiri Mountain.

For the past 500 years, three hapū have lived there - an occupation recognised by two government titles.

The legal title to Porotī Springs was given to Māori trustees in the 1890s, and their treaty claim over the resource has been central to Māori claims over freshwater.

While the three hapū own the springs, any say in who uses the water in the spring is left to local and regional councils.

Taipari Munro

Taipari Munro Photo: Supplied

Local kaumatua Taipari Munro said they had been shut out from decision-making and had little trust for council bodies.

"We don't trust that can happen properly when you have other people sitting at the table making decisions when we should be sitting at that table with those who are sitting there."

While hapū have no water rights to their own spring, the council has allocated two commercial businesses rights to use the water from the spring and an old council bore across the road.

The two commercial groups have been granted consent to access thousands of cubic metres daily.

Water bottling company Zodiac Holdings and Maungatapere Water Company are allowed to take up to 19.500 m3 of water daily.

Both are able to on-sell the free water for commercial benefit but while Zodiac Holdings has held the consent for years, it was yet to sell any.

John Wiessing is the chairman of the Maungatapere Water Company, a group of farmers and orchardists who buy shares from the Water Company for access to water.

"We actually have a water right. We extract water from just below the Porotī Springs, we pump that water around the Maungatapere, the Whatitiri area for the benefit of shareholders and non-shareholders."

Asked whether the three hapū in the area should have rights to water in the spring, Mr Wiessing said: "Is it fair? Well, I wouldn't like to comment. The question of fairness when it comes to water rights is a pretty emotive issue."

That response has angered Mr Munro, who said: "I think he has a cheek to be saying that, you know we were there first, we are the first nations people of that place and he's talking about it all getting emotive - well what does he expect after 200 and something years?"

Zodiac Holdings has a consent to sell bottled water into the Asian market.

Both companies pay nothing for the water but pay for the council consent process.

Northland Regional Council told RNZ the last consent requested by Zodiac Holdings to increase the maximum volume of water that it could take under its consent cost the company $26,000, it was declined but an appealed was subsequently granted by the Environment Court via consent order. The Council does not know what costs were incurred by Zodiac in the appeal process.

RNZ approached both shareholders of Zodiac Holdings for comment but they both declined.

Mr Wiessing, from Maungatapere Water Company, said locals who owned farms, orchards or small lifestyle blocks could buy shares in the company by paying $3000 a share and an annual fee.

The length of the consent for both the water company and Zodiac Holdings was 35 years, which Mr Wiessing said was fair.

"The hapū around Porotī Springs can actually use water for their cultural needs but they can't extract it for commercial use."

Asked whether this was a fair process, Mr Wiessing said: "I'll probably steer clear of that. It is what it is. Basically the system operates on a basis of first in, first served."

RNZ spoke to another Maungatapere Water Company shareholder, who owns a Wellington cafe. She had no idea she held shares in a water company and declined to comment further.

Two other shareholders operate hedge funds in Asia. A farming magazine last year described one of them as a billionaire Englishman who said "he wants to put his wealth in land assets around the world and has bought New Zealand's largest orchards".

Across the Tasman

Part of the current freshwater reform being led by government will look at seeking better outcomes for iwi, something every iwi leader in the country is watching closely.

Across the ditch, water is tradable and it can be unbundled from the land.

Australian Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson pointed to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing foreign ownership of agricultural water entitlements had increased 55 percent between 2010 and 2013.

Last month, the Australian government announced it was setting up a register to record foreign ownership of water rights.

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