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Water group seek inclusion on Fast Track Bill

Applications to include projects in the government’s Fast Track Approvals Bill are now open, and the Wairarapa Water Advocacy Group [WWAG] has confirmed it “will work with Irrigation New Zealand and others on how we put forward an application” for a large-scale water storage project in the region.

The Bill was introduced to the House under urgency in March to speed up the delivery of infrastructure and development projects with significant regional or national benefits by creating a ‘one-stop-shop’ for approvals under a range of regulatory regimes.

“Large-scale water storage projects have been included in the list of projects put forward by Irrigation NZ,” WWAG’s Simon Casey said in a written statement to the Times-Age.

“We will need to put forward a specific application as part of the request now that the process has been defined [but] there are no guarantees as we are not at the same level of readiness as some of the other projects.”

The original scheme, which was canned in 2021, required taking water from rivers when they are at or below minimum flow levels, which is a prohibited activity under the Greater Wellington Regional Council’s [GWRC] Natural Resources Plan.

Projects that include prohibited activities under the Resource Management Act [RMA] are not “ineligible” to use the government’s new proposed fast-track process.

In his statement, Casey said the “prohibited activity that was noted in the original planning was about the minimum
flow during low flow time”.

“Essentially, it is designed to ensure that the ecology of the river is protected at or below minimum flows, and this is fully supported by the project team.”

He said one benefit of bulk water storage is that rivers can be supplemented “during minimum flows to help improve the ecological impacts of the river during dry periods.”

He argued this should be a permitted activity, “so long as taking water from the river downstream during periods of supplemental flows does not bring the water below the nominated minimum”.

“But if the river flow is so low that additional water from a storage scheme cannot raise the river to minimum flows, then alternatives would be explored as reliability of supply is critical to the success of any water storage project.”

Tom Kay, freshwater advocate for Forest and Bird, said, “Taking water supplied by the dam should not be a permitted activity.”

“There are too many potential impacts, and our fish, macroinvertebrates, and birds can’t handle any more pressure. Already, 76 per cent of our native fish [including our six whitebait species] are threatened with or at risk of extinction.

“Any supposed benefits of large-scale water storage like this are offset by the enormous destruction that dams of this scale create – including the destruction of habitat, regulation of flows, pollution from more intensive land use, and the taking of water to fill the dam.”

He considered the WWAG’s indication that alternatives would be explored sounded “like a compromise is being sought and, for that, rules
would have to change”.

“But our rivers and streams have already compromised enough. Eighty-five per cent already exceed general guidelines for water quality. “Ninety per cent of our wetlands are gone. If we want to cope with drier summers and the more extreme weather we’ll see as the climate continues to change, we need to restore wetlands, make room for our rivers, reforest our hillsides, and shift our land use towards more sustainable farming.

“A dam is not a solution.”

WWAG has been in contact with the Wairarapa councils and GWRC “to ensure that bulk water storage is included in their respective long-term plans”, Casey said, and the group was seeking funding for a review of the options “to ascertain whether the Wakamoekau option or variations of that option is still the preferred option”.

“Other parties consulted include iwi, Federated Farmers, Wairarapa Water Society and some large-scale industrial water users. The community will be consulted once the review has been completed.”

The period for submissions on the Fast Track Approvals Bill closes on April 19.

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