Water quality and volumes in our rivers and lakes could be severely affected if government moves to amend the Resource Management Act (RMA) go ahead, say outraged regional conservation bodies.
A Technical Advisory Group (TAG) report on proposed RMA changes has prompted an angry response from leading environmental organisations in the form of an open letter to Environment Minister Amy Adams. Forest & Bird, Fish & Game NZ, Environmental Defence Society, Ecologic, WWF and Greenpeace all joined forces to outline their concerns.
The groups say the proposals would substantially lower environmental standards - and that goes against the core purpose of the legislation. Recommendations such as removing terms like 'protect", "preserve", "maintain" and "enhance" "smacked of political opportunism to fit a perceived government economic growth agenda," they said.
However, Tauranga National MP Simon Bridges said the recommendations were that of an independent advisory group and they would be considered along with other advice before any changes were made. He said the Government had campaigned in 2008 and 2011 on ongoing RMA reform.
David Dowrick is chairman of Forest and Bird's Tauranga branch. "There will be implications everywhere in the country," he said. "That probably applies more strongly here in the Bay of Plenty than in some other areas of New Zealand.
"The RMA was greatly fought for at the time of its inception and it has been accepted as a very appropriate law. It doesn't need mucking around with. Even those who protested against it because they thought it would hold everything up have seen that it hasn't turned out that way.
"I can't think what's got into the Government to propose this. For some reason they think there's something in it for them and it will certainly cause alarm."
There was more than a whiff of suspicion at the motives behind the move, Mr Dowrick said.
"They've introduced it well away from election time but there will be a big backlash. They will pay a big price with the electorate."
Fish and Game chief executive Bryce Johnson called the proposals an "out-and-out attack on the environment, paving the way for rampant and unsustainable development".
Mr Bryce said a key example was the proposal to scrap clause 7(h) which specifically referenced "protection of the habitat of trout and salmon".
This would remove what water resource developers see as a road block to their plans to privately profit from the public water resources, he said.
Eastern Region Fish and Game manager Rob Pitkethley said there were strong regional concerns.
"From an Eastern Region perspective, which includes the Bay of Plenty and Rotorua lakes, the protection of salmon and trout habitats is very important."
He said a number of "applications for significant water-takes from tributary streams" to the Rotorua Lakes had previously been alerted to their full obligations under, and the implications of, the RMA.
"The RMA actually provides a high degree of protection at the moment," he said.
Mr Pitkethley said the RMA review had been triggered by the Canterbury earthquake. It was intended to investigate how the legislation coped with natural hazards, he said. "The TAG report seems to have gone far further than expected. The suggested changes are far more pro-development and give access to more water and the ability to use more water for industrial and other purposes."
Increased industrial usage could have implications for water quality, he said. "Freshwater quality is a big issue. It's a big issue for the species, it's a big issue for the communities which could potentially be affected, and for many New Zealanders in general. If you had a river that had salmon and trout in it, and their status was changed, you have the potential of far less water running through that river and the quality being undermined."
But Mr Bridges issued a robust defence of the Government's position.
"If I had a dollar for every time a Tauranga person has told me the Government needs to reform and overhaul the RMA I would be a rich man. Since I have been an MP it has been one of a handful of issues that come up locally time and time again.
"In ensuring the Government achieves enduring good law we need to listen to all perspectives across the political spectrum before we make decisions. Having said that, we campaigned at both the 2008 and 2011 election on ongoing RMA reform and we remain committed to improving the legal framework in this area."
Mr Bridges said no decisions had been made. He added that the Government would take a broad range of views into account before making its next move.
"The report on changes to [clauses] 6 and 7 of the RMA represents the independent views of those on the advisory group, and the Government will consider the recommendations as part of our wider reforms of the resource management system.
"The Government asked an independent technical advisory group to provide advice on whether the RMA should be amended to give greater consideration to emerging issues like natural hazards, and urban and infrastructure development. Currently the RMA prioritises preserving natural character, landscape, flora and fauna, public access, cultural values and heritage over managing natural hazards.
"We welcome the feedback from the EDS, Fish & Game, WWF, Forest & Bird, Greenpeace and Ecologic. This feedback will be considered alongside a range of other advice, including the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum, as part of the Government's wider reforms of the resource management system.
"A key consideration for the Government in thinking about any changes to the resource management system is to achieve enduring outcomes while reducing the time, costs and uncertainties involved in the process."
Photo: David Dowrick, Forest and Bird's Tauranga branch chairman, says recommendations to amend the RMA would have huge implications for water quality.. John Borren.