'Suck it and see' avo water consents worry conservationists

7:59 pm on 7 June 2018

Northland is poised to become the avocado capital of New Zealand, with the granting of water rights for growers north of Kaitaia.

Diggers moving earth at Motutangi for new avocado orchards.

Diggers moving earth at Motutangi for new avocado orchards. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

The Northland Regional Council has given 17 growers north of Kaitaia resource consents to draw 2 million cubic metres of water a year from the Aupōuri aquifer.

But critics are calling it a 'suck it and see' decision that could ruin prized wetlands.

Nearly 1000 hectares of trees are being planted in avocados on the Aupōuri peninsula and the trees are thriving in the warm climate and free draining soils.

Today the growers secured the other magic ingredient: water.

The Motutangi-Waiharara Water Users Group has won the right to sink bores into the Aupōuri aquifer to irrigate their trees.

Avocado Council chief executive Jen Scoular said it was excellent news for the industry.

"It's fantastic that we've got the water our growers think they need, and we now have access to that resource to grow that rural community," she said.

Some of the new and larger avocado growers in the Far North are corporates, investors from Auckland and Australia.

But others including Georgina Tui and Mate Covich are local dairy farmers who want to convert their farm to an avocado orchard.

Ms Tui said the changes could transform not just land-use but the economy of the Aupōuri peninsula.

"We're quite a small dairy farm for these days; we milk about 200 cows, and we employ maybe one person full-time," she said.

"If we turn that into an avocado farm we'd be employing probably eight people full-time plus seasonal workers.

"You would need more housings, shops and so on and I think the whole area is just going to boom," Ms Tui said.

Not everyone was so optimistic.

The Conservation Department opposed the water take, saying there was not enough known about the Aupōuri aquifer to allow so many growers to plug into it.

DOC is worried about the impact on protected wetlands, like Waipapakauri, and its world-class scientific reserve at Motutangi.

It told commissioners at the resource consent hearings that it was not clear how the wetlands and the aquifer were linked, and a lot more research was needed before consents could safely be granted.

The commissioners who heard the case for the resource consents have agreed there was uncertainty about the magnitude of the changes that might happen.

"Lowering of groundwater levels poses a risk of sea water intrusion and a risk to existing users, and to the health of the Kaimaumau Wetland," they said in their decision.

But they went on to say the risks could be managed:

"There is agreement that the amount of recharge to the aquifer can comfortably sustain the level of groundwater abstraction that is proposed. This can adequately be addressed through an adaptive management strategy and a staged approach to taking the maximum consented volumes of water."

That would entail continual monitoring to see how increasing water takes were affecting the aquifer.

Far North conservationists were today sceptical.

Kevin Matthews, a local farmer and ecologist who chairs the Bushland Trust, said the commissioners had effectively given growers permission to 'suck it and see'.

He said that was a risky way to treat an aquifer that was the only source of ground water on the peninsula.

"It certainly confirms what the DOC submission was about - that there is simply not enough information on which to base a consent," he said.

"They're saying the effects are less than minor, but how do they know that, if their approach is staged monitoring?"

Mr Matthews said he hoped DOC would appeal against the resource consents.

And Georgina Tui said the growers were not counting their avos or breaking out the champagne just yet.

She said the consents process had cost her and her partner $15,000 so far in legal costs and they were fully expecting DOC to lodge an appeal.

DOC said it would scrutinise the avocado growers' water consents and make a decision within three weeks on whether to challenge them in the Environment Court.

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