Let's all take a deep breath.

Some prominent local figures have recently been whipping up anxiety about the very prospect of Water Conservation Orders. After a slew of opinion pieces saying a WCO on the Ngaruroro and Clive Rivers will completely wreck the way of life in the Hawke's Bay - I'd be worried too.

But there is no need to panic. Let me explain what a Water Conservation Order (WCO) would achieve.

Firstly, recognition. A WCO recognises that a body of water has outstanding values that are worthy of protection. These values can include wildlife, habitat, fishing, scenic beauty, recreation, and historical, cultural and spiritual significance in tikanga Māori.

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Second, a WCO determines the best way that the water body should be managed to protect those outstanding values.

Third, there are currently 15 water bodies around New Zealand that have been gazetted with WCOs due to their outstanding values. All of which have a working relationship with agriculture. Agriculture and a WCO can and do co-exist.

Take New Zealand's fifth largest lake, Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere for example. Nearly all of the water entering Lake Ellesmere is derived from the groundwater system that underlies the gravel-dominated strata of the Central Canterbury Plains. A WCO was granted in 1990 to preserve its wetlands and fish, and recognise it as a habitat for wildlife, and of significance to Maori.

There is also a WCO on the North Island's third largest lake Lake Wairarapa. Those water conservation orders have co-existed for nearly 20 years alongside significant agricultural activity in their respective catchments. Nothing has fallen apart. In fact both regions have a thriving and booming economy.

They haven't lost huge businesses or hundreds of jobs, if anything locals would refer to the WCOs with pride saying the recognition has resulted in firm environmental parameters for their management that has focussed greater attention on the need for agricultural sustainability. Economy and ecology have to work together.

Fourth, there is a judicial process under the Resource Management Act (RMA). After the application is accepted by the Minister for the Environment, a special tribunal is appointed to hear the case.

Any person can make a submission to, and present their case in front of, the special tribunal. The special tribunal's job is to establish whether the water body has outstanding values, and then what is the best way to give protection to those values. As part of its job the special tribunal must have regard to "the needs of primary and secondary industry, and of the community" (section 207(b) of the RMA)).

The decision of the special tribunal is subject to appeal to the Environment Court and the court then reports its decision to the minister who will make the final decision.

Fifth, existing water permits are unaffected by a WCO. In fact, the RMA specifically states in section 217(1) that: "No water conservation order shall affect or restrict any resource consent granted or any lawful use established in respect of the water body before the order is made".

So, we've established that WCOs and agriculture do co-exist. A fair judicial process hears submissions from the community including farmers' concerns for irrigation and economy. The special tribunal, the Environment Court and the minister, are required to take into account the needs of primary and secondary industry, and of the community in deciding how to best protect the water body's outstanding values.

A Water Conservation Order is the best tool we have for protecting outstanding values of freshwater. The recognition won't solve all our water quality and quantity problems, but nor will it create new ones.

If a water body is outstanding then most New Zealanders would agree that it deserves to be protected. The Water Conservation Order process is a robust mechanism for achieving that goal, while taking into account the needs and concerns of the community.

Annabeth Cohen is Forest & Bird's Freshwater Advocate. All opinions are the writer's and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.