Forest & Bird outlines 'serious concern' about Waimea dam local bill

Written by Cherie Sivignon

The Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society of New Zealand Inc has outlined "serious concern" about a local bill designed to enable construction of the proposed Waimea dam, near Nelson.

On September 19, the Tasman District Council (Waimea Water Augmentation Scheme) Bill passed its first reading in Parliament. It was referred to the governance and administration committee, which accepted submissions until midnight on Friday.

The bill seeks to gain an inundation easement over 9.67 hectares of conservation land in the Mount Richmond State Forest Park, needed for the reservoir of the proposed dam. It also aims to vest in the council 1.35ha of Crown riverbed in the Lee Valley on which the dam will be built.

In a written submission to the select committee, which it also released to Stuff, Forest & Bird says the use of a local bill "is misguided in attempting to override sound conservation legislation and reduce the amount of public scrutiny that should be given to this activity on public conservation land".

"It bodes poorly for conservation legislation if a local bill can usurp these layers of protection in such an arbitrary manner," it says.

Mt Richmond Forest Park is home to "several endemic plants and animals, as well as having a wide and varied geology".

Forest & Bird says it has always considered the inundation to be "problematic and in conflict with conservation legislation".

"The promoters and decision-makers throughout the process have ignored the problems of inundating the part of the Lee River and its riparian margins within the forest park, and relied heavily on the potential use of the Public Works Act, without testing the validity of that approach," the submission says. "As in other cases we have been involved with, if decision making is compartmentalised, it becomes possible to get a project so far down the track that pressure can be exerted on other parts of the process to also fall into line."

Forest & Bird appealed the resource consents for the dam to the Environment Court.

"Although Forest & Bird took a pragmatic approach and ultimately settled in Environment Court mediation, this did not mean it supported the project," the submission says. "Settlement occurred because Forest & Bird had achieved all that it could within the confines of the artificially narrow scope of the Resource Management Act processes."

It remained concerned about the potential water quality effects from land-use intensification as a result of the dam.

"Although substantive emphasis has been given to the potential positive effects of an augmented water supply ... no mention is made of the negative downstream effects of increasing irrigation in a catchment that is already suffering from problematic nitrate problems in the groundwater," the submission says.

Forest & Bird also raises concern about potential implications nationally of the proposed law.

"If this bill is approved, it is highly likely that further local bills seeking to enable development on the conservation estate will be put forward, and considered through a process that is entirely unsuited to the subject matter," the submission says.

"We wish to make clear that we are not using this process to attempt to halt the Waimea dam, rather, we are very concerned about the use of this mechanism, and the message it sends more broadly that New Zealand's conservation estate is available for development, even where conservation legislation would prohibit it."

National, Labour, NZ First and Act MPs supported the bill at its first reading while the Greens opposed it. Labour Minister David Parker said he didn't know of a "better water augmentation scheme in New Zealand than this one".

The select committee is likely to hear submissions later this month. The bill, which is being sponsored by Nelson MP Dr Nick Smith, is due to be reported back to Parliament on November 7.