Water rights back to Waitangi Tribunal

11:21 am on 29 April 2016

Who owns New Zealand's water is the million-dollar question.

Despite a 2012 Waitangi Tribunal ruling that Māori have rights and interests in water, the country is no closer to answering that question - which is fast becoming priceless.

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Photo: 123RF

When considering the Māori Council's claim three years ago, the tribunal determined Māori had rights equivalent to ownership under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Those rights were to be protected by the treaty with the expectation that the waters would be shared with incoming settlers.

But the tribunal's recommendations aren't binding; the government doesn't have to listen to them. Regardless, the tribunal has announced the second phase of Māori Council's claim will go ahead.

New Zealand Māori Council solicitor Donna Hall welcomed the decision.

"The council sees Māori as having in water, as bigger than just a management interest, and the Māori proprietary interest is based in access to the water, use of the water and partial control."

The case the Māori Council will use as evidence for the claim is the story of the Porotī Springs near Whangarei.

Despite the springs being vested to six Māori owners in 1896, descendants today have no right to the water other than for cultural purposes.

"When the Whangarei settling fathers couldn't access the water at source, what they did is drop wells above and below the source and drew the water out - if you like they siphoned it out the side.

"Effectively what that has done is deprived the people of Porotī of what was intended by orders to be protected for them, was denied really, and that's been the case since the 1890s."

The introduction of the 1967 Water and Soil Conservation Act further affected the Porotī people as the policy nationalised the use and allocation of water and introduced water boards.

"These water boards grant consents and suddenly the Porotī family find that they've got an irrigation scheme being set up there, they've got a whole lot of farmers all bidding.

"And what's the difference, between these groups that suddenly start competing for the water and the Porotī family, is that they've all got money, and the Porotī family is a little cluster of whānau barely surviving, hanging on there by their springs.

"It's a case that will make your blood boil."

Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox said it was time to put all the cards on the table.

"We have been allocating water in this country for 60 years to the corporate benefit of people who make profit, profit for themselves.

"They argue that they provide jobs for others in the region but they are the ones who benefit from a free resource and I think all, including farmers, should be made to pay for the water that they use for corporate benefit."

While water can't be sold by local authorities, it's the role of regional councils to allocate the right to use it.

Across Taranaki, for example, senior council staff make decisions on who receives water.

Of the groundwater allocations, other than domestic use, the next largest users are the petrochemical industry, dairy farming and meat processing.

Ms Fox said the current system was unfair and more needed to be done to protect the resource, and consequences for those not who failed to do so.

"Those people who cause the degradation of our rivers should have to pay for the clean-up because to not do so is corporate fraud."

There is no date for the next phase of the water claim but it is expected to be in the new year.

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