Despite the rhetoric around it, the WCO application not only protects the values of two Hawke's Bay waterways, but also the economic, and cultural value they provide.

This is according to Massey University Associate Professor Christine Cheyne, who said the WCO would provide long-term protection for the health of both rivers, and for the unique braided river ecosystem of the Ngaruroro.

"A WCO will ensure a very high level of protection for the good water quality of the Ngaruroro and will assist with improving the river over time so that it can continue to underpin a strong Hawke's Bay economy," she said.

"But we also need to recognise it is not just its economic value but its cultural value that the WCO will also protect. This, too, cannot be ignored in our planning processes."

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There was not enough long-term thinking in regional planning framework for freshwater, and not enough focus on the New Zealand-wide significance of the rivers, the School of People, Environment and Planning professor said.

"This is about a longer-term framework which is increasingly recognised as necessary."

The distinction between national, and local action is at the heart of the debate around the WCO - many local opponents fear it would interfere with the community-led TANK process, and would not factor in local needs, and values.

However, Ms Cheyne said both the TANK process and the WCO hearing could run their course: "the Minister for the Environment clearly thought so or he would not have set up the Special Tribunal".

"I guess the question is how long will it be before there are consensus recommendations from the TANK process."

She said she was puzzled at how opponents had portrayed the WCO, as it was "very much community-driven and does not run rough-shod over the regional planning process".

"Each process can inform the other. It's win-win in my view."

Regional leaders expressed a desire for the WCO hearing to be deferred until after the TANK process - but Ms Cheyne said she felt the application needed to be considered on its own merits.

Both processes are included in the Resource Management Act 1991, but Dr Cheyne said WCOs were intentionally included in a separate part of the act from the regional planning provisions.

This was because of the need to ensure when rivers of national significance, they could receive protection. There had always been a provision for national planning instruments that constrain what regional councils could do.

She also weighed in on the high profile "No to WCO" campaign against the application - with opponents claiming it would decimate primary production in Hawke's Bay.

"I think it is unfortunate that there has been such vehement opposition to the WCO application as it seems to be based on some unfounded fears about economic impacts and also some misunderstandings about planning processes," she said.

Other WCOs had given provision for a range of values - including economic, industrial, recreational, and conservation - and she expected the same would happen with this application.

There is another policy running alongside the WCO and TANK processes - the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.

This is a nationally-imposed planning instrument, and regional plans will have to be consistent with its policies. It provides direction to local government on their responsibilities under the RMA when it comes to matters of national significance.

"So regional planning processes like the TANK process cannot ignore these centrally imposed instruments. We need to remember that the NPS-FM came about because of very strong public support for much better care of our rivers and other freshwater bodies. It has been further strengthened to address public concern about degradation of water bodies."

Dr Cheyne teaches sustainability, and as a local government specialist is particularly
interested in planning for and implementation of sustainability by local government.