25 Nov 2019

Otago farmers' deemed permits to be renewed in a hurry

7:52 pm on 25 November 2019

The Otago Regional Council has pledged to lift its game and settle a wrangle over water rights to a central Otago river that dates back 140 years.

Manuherikia River

Manuherikia River Photo: Supplied / Public Domain

The council's new chair Marion Hobbs has pledged more resources and more hard work after the council was chided by its own current deputy chairman Michael Laws, and by a Christchurch academic who was commissioned to write an official report on the problem.

Ms Hobbs also received a firm hurry-up message from Environment Minister David Parker.

The problem concerns rights by 87 farmers to take water from Central Otago's Manuherikia River.

These rights stemmed originally from water diversions used for sluicing mines during the gold rushes.

After the miners disappeared, the water races were used to irrigate farmland, and gradually hardened into bonafide property rights after a century of repeated use.

These customary rights were formally extinguished by the Resource Management Act, in 1991, which gave the council 20 years to terminate the water rights or renew them under new rules prescribed by that act.

The deadline was 2021 and the council was frequently accused of procrastination in letting the problem slide by without being dealt with.

Ms Hobbs has now pledged to tackle this programme at the eleventh hour.

"We in Otago have known that deemed permits (their official title) were due to be renewed for the last 30 years," Ms Hobbs said.

"So, for someone to finally give us a hurry-up is welcome."

She said the problem lay with both councillors and council staff.

"There was almost a 'laissez-faire' attitude, you know, 'we will get onto it some time,' but meanwhile it is in the too-hard basket."

Many farmers with traditional rights to the river have had them converted to new permits under the Resource Management Act since it was passed.

But around 87 still need to be dealt with and time is ticking away.

Ms Hobbs agreed with several complaints that the council did not have enough staff or expertise available to the required work speedily.

But it was not just staff at fault.

"I have often thought the council was missing in action, we have got to get out there," she said.

She said she expected the farmers with the archaic water permits would get them renewed under modern terms and conditions, but at a lower volume than their traditional entitlements.

Similar issues faced farmers near the Cardrona and Arrow Rivers, but Ms Hobbs said their problems were easier to handle.

She added this much-delayed issue would no sooner be solved than a whole new problem would fall onto the councillors' desks: dealing with region-wide water rules required under the government's proposed Action Plan for Healthy Waterways.

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