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Environment Waikato’s council is due to decide next week whether to accept the recommendation of a hearings committee that has been looking at the proposed Variation 6 policy change covering the way water is taken and used in the region.
The recommendation, released publicly today, is that the council adopt Variation 6 to the Waikato Regional Plan, with the amendments set out in the report of the committee, and that council agrees to the decision being publicly notified.
Public notification means parties who made submissions on Variation 6 would be able to make legal challenges to the Environment Court on the variation before it is implemented.
The amendments recommended by the committee – while significant in some cases - do not fundamentally alter the original Variation 6 document’s proposals.
At the council’s next meeting on 30 October, councillors will consider whether or not to adopt the hearing committee’s recommendation regarding Variation 6.
The Variation suggests new ways of prioritising the use of water in the Waikato region so as to best protect the needs of people and stock, as well as the region’s nationally important hydro electricity sector during periods of low water flow.
The background to Variation 6 is that demand for surface and ground water has grown substantially in the Waikato in recent years to the point where every day the region consumes about two million cubic metres of surface water – 10 times more than 20 years ago.
Leaving sufficient water to flow naturally is considered necessary to ensure that natural systems, such as the Waikato River, remain healthy and continue to provide many services and amenities such as electricity generation, fisheries, clean water for swimming and boating facilities.
In some catchments, consents to take water are considered to have reached the maximum amount consistent with maintaining healthy waterways and leaving enough water for the reasonable use of others.
Drinking water supplies and agriculture each use about a third of the water take in the region. Industry uses 27 per cent, horticulture six per cent and recreation activities (such as pools and golf courses) use about two per cent.
The recent growth in demand has been driven by rising urban and industrial use – due to population growth and business development – and an expanding dairy sector. Strong urban growth is set to continue.
This means that the current first in, first served system used to grant water take consents is ineffective given the need to prioritise supplying water for people, urban centres, businesses and stock drinking water, as well as meet Government requirements to support renewable energy generation.
Variation 6 proposes that “first in, first served” is retained to a degree, but only after domestic and municipal supply requirements are met and there is enough water for other “in stream” uses such as renewable electricity generation.
Under Variation 6, water use consents in each catchment would expire at the same time rather than a whole range of times, as happens at present. Allocations would thereafter be made for 15 year periods and water take consents would be transferable to someone undertaking similar activities in the same area
It is expected that this system will allow Environment Waikato to better manage the way water use is affecting water quality and the physical character of our waterways in each catchment. It is believed the risk of not shifting to the new system is that the environment may suffer and that not enough water will be available to meet the priority needs of people during a period of rapid regional growth.
In line with central Government wishes, the proposed new rules give water use priority to renewable electricity generation over other non domestic or municipal users, such as agriculture, in certain circumstances. But Environment Waikato is also acutely aware of how important other sectors are to the Waikato.
Based on the evidence presented at the hearing the hearing committee are confident that the proposed changes provide adequate security for existing water take consent holders and will not adversely impact on their operations. However, it is acknowledged that the easily available water is being used and the increasing demand for water in the region will lead to increased competition and costs for those seeking new water take consents.
The council is committed to working very closely with all interested parties – including Waikato-Tainui and other iwi - on managing the way water use impacts on the health of our waterways.
However, on iwi requests for specific water allocations to them the hearing committee have indicated they feel this is a matter for iwi and the Crown to address as part of the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process.
The council already has many of the powers outlined in Variation 6. But the new rules make these clearer and set out explicitly how they will work. It is felt that the rules will provide greater operational clarity for everyone – from the council to water users.
A limited number of copies of the full recommendation are available for inspection at EW’s offices in Hamilton, Paeroa, Whitianga and Taupo.
It is due to be available online on 15 November if the committee’s recommendation is confirmed and formally publicly notified.