The fate of a resource consent application to build a factory to bottle commercial quantities of water at Poroti in Northland might hinge on traffic hazards, parking provisions and an effluent field.

That is a glimmer of hope hardly dared to be felt by local hapu Te Urioroi, Te Parawhau and Te Mahurehure, comprising the Whatitiri Maori Reserves Trust - guardians of the springs and its outlets on their few acres of land at Whatatiri, 25km west of Whangarei.

The hapu/trust believes its efforts so far to stop Auckland company Zodiac Holdings extracting between 3 and 5 million litres of water a year from an already jeopardised source have been ignored.

Hapu members, from left, Delwyn Brown, Khaznae Cooper-Brown, Moses Cooper, Millan Ruka, Hona Edwards, Mahara Munro, Koketai Edmonds and Erana Munro in 2015.
Hapu members, from left, Delwyn Brown, Khaznae Cooper-Brown, Moses Cooper, Millan Ruka, Hona Edwards, Mahara Munro, Koketai Edmonds and Erana Munro in 2015.

Zodiac Holdings has recently applied for consent from Whangarei District Council (WDC) to build a 3600sqm factory at the old bore site, previously owned by the council, across the road from the springs.

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Zodiac, incorporating New Zealand Spring Water, said in its application it could mitigate issues such as the factory exceeding the council's size regime, limited vehicle parking, wastewater disposal and the extra traffic load on the road.

Zodiac has a Northland Regional Council (NRC) permit to take up to 150,000 litres a day to bottle water it will brand as Thunder Mountain and, according to its website, sell to domestic and Asian markets.

The plant would employ up to 20 workers, most at the Poroti site.

In the past the Poroti Springs' "mauri, wairua and mana" have been central to the three-hapu trust's drive to protect the water flow and quality. Their concerns have been heightened by recent regular test findings of nitrates and E.coli in the stream, springs and groundwater, spokesman Millan Ruka said.

The trust also has an economic and eco-cultural interest in the springs' pools and two outlets, Tahi and Rua, to the Waipao Stream, with a view to future tuna (eel) nurseries, koura (freshwater crays) and other aquaculture. The trust fears a reduction in the flow will, as would pollution, compromise hapu development plans.

NRC permits amount to about 59,000 cubic litres a day for Zodiac and, downstream, the WDC and Maungatapere Water Company (MWC), neither of the latter ever taking more than half their allowed quantity.

All existing permits specify extraction must stop should the flow below the springs drop to below 50 litres per second. At times that low flow occurs naturally, Mr Ruka said. The Poroti people cannot stop the springs on land which they own being tapped. They can only control access across their land.

That's why in 1971 the Whangarei council drilled into the aquifer only metres upstream, on the edge of the hapu land, to draw for town supply.

During the droughts of 1983 and 1987, while watercress, tuna and other aqua-life died, the council continued to draw water until the springs ran dry. It closed the bore when told to after an NRC Special Tribunal hearing. The tribunal advised the bore should be decommissioned by 1991.

The council got consent to take water from the same downstream site as the MWC, a consortium of farmers and horticulturists. In 2004 the council sold the bore site above the springhead, which was supposed to be closed for good but was never capped, to Zodiac.

The council had invested $1.5 million at the site over the years but sold it to Zodiac for only $40,000. Zodiac first expressed its interest in 2001 and had leased the bore before buying it, though never used its permits to take water.

In 2013 the NRC gave Zodiac, WDC and MWC water rights for the next 35 years
SO FAR, although the figure of $15m has been attributed to gains from the water for other users, the three hapu in the trust have had not one cent of it.

Yet hapu ownership of the springs - on the grounds they were essential for the people's wellbeing - was recognised by the Government in 1896 and ratified in various forums and documents since then.

Like iwi and communities all over New Zealand right now, the three Poroti hapu are at the mercy of the dictum that "no one owns the water''. That itself is central to a major environmental, ideological and cultural hot potato being debated in Waitangi Tribunal hearings, in Parliament, local government, by planners, economists, farming interests and scientists.

If no one owns the water, does that give the right to anyone to just take it?

While the debate continues, the resource is wide open for commercial exploitation. At least 73 companies have consent to take up to 23 billion litres a year from New Zealand's most pure water sources.

That there are signs of political will - mainly from opposition parties - to both stem and charge for that flow hardly shines light at the end of the tunnel for the people of Poroti, who fear it will be too little, too late.

The Green Party has firmly nailed its colours to the trust's flag. Party leader James Shaw visited the site yesterday.

"The local hapu of Poroti have been working to protect the water of their area for decades. It's time we stand up and help them, by forcing our councils to reject the consent given to Zodiac,'' Mr Shaw said.

"It's irresponsible that this Government continues to allow this situation all over the country. The Green Party will put a 10c/litre charge on bottled and exported water. The problem has been allowed to get so big we need to protect our water from being taken for free immediately; something National is not prepared to do.

"Then, as a country, we will have time to develop a stance on our water that honours Te Tiriti, and provides benefits for the regions where water actually comes from.''

Whangarei candidate Shane Jones, for NZ First, is related to the Poroti hapu and, personal ties aside, has been outspoken about commercial profiteering from free water.

"This is not an issue for Maori alone but for all New Zealanders. If someone wants to sell water overseas then they must be taxed. If you're taking gas, silver or gold, you pay tax,'' he said.

"Zodiac, as they export water from Poroti, can look forward to paying a massive levy for exploiting that resource.''

Mr Jones said he planned to meet with the hapu "to talk about how NZ First can help them".

In August, an application to take millions of litres of water from a South Waikato source was put on hold after a local iwi said the operation would diminish "the mauri, wairua and mana" of the spring.

New Zealand Pure Blue Spring Ltd applied in June for the rights to take 6.9 million litres daily from the Waihou River's Blue Spring near Putaruru.

In a decision released on Wednesday, Waikato Regional Council said the Raukawa iwi, along with a number of other affiliated parties, were "affected persons" under the RMA. In order for the council to grant a non-notified consent - stopping the public from formally objecting or making submissions - it needed written consent from Raukawa; until which time the application was on hold.

Mr Ruka considers - "compared to NRC's orchestrated collaboration with the commercial party and sleights of hand to avoid the hapu having anything to do with the consent issue" - the Waikato decision recognises the Waitangi Treaty and RMA legislation regarding partnerships and consultation.

By contrast, the Poroti hapu only recently learned the factory beside their springs would add up to 80 heavy traffic movements a day (one every 12 minutes) on Highway 15 (Maungakahia to Portland, via Otaika Valley), a log route already notorious for truck crashes. The site itself is also next to Poroti School.

The hapu had been unaware that a traffic report and NZ Transport Agency's approval regarding traffic movement and site access had been in the council's hands for a full year.
Yet both WDC and NRC have copies of the Whatitiri Resource Management Unit Plan, required in the RMA. Mr Ruka said he thought that plan would be automatically tagged to and raise flags regarding issues concerning the trust.

"Our water is being stolen, our waterways compromised, and we're not even deemed an affected party," he said.

"We are dealing with two local governments, Whangarei District and Northern Regional, who don't work together but both have their own interpretation of the RMA, and we're also dealing with central government because it's responsible for the RMA.

"But while we do what's expected of us, we are being sidelined by all of them."

Back to Zodiac's application: no water flow, quality, environmental or cultural issues are relevant to a building consent and should not be raised in submissions to the current building consent process, WDC has said.

The hapu - whose land is "below, above and beside" the bore and factory sites at 671 and 649 Mangakahia Rd - has run out of resources after a 10-year battle to stop commercial-sized extraction from an already jeopardised water flow; is too tired to keep lobbying for support; "has zero in the kitty" and no available experts to help put in the hard yards.

Mr Ruka hopes others affected by "the death road" (Highway 15) or concerned about other impacts would make submissions to WDC. Of all the local representatives who could help, the only one who has actively supported the hapu and gone public calling for more support is elected WDC member Trish Cutforth, he said.

The bottling plant is a discretionary activity, not able to be simply ticked in-house, and Ms Cutforth has urged people to make submissions opposing the application before the August 31 close-off date.

Ms Cutforth reiterated submissions could only relate to the building and its potential impacts: "Whether that's traffic, or noise or the appropriateness of a commercial operation in that area."

Zodiac has demonstrated it might not even need an on-site factory. The company had never exercised its right to draw water from Poroti until just over a month ago, taking 25,000 litres to Auckland by tanker and bottling it the next day, July 4.

"As there is no obligation under the consent to bottle water on site at Poroti, Zodiac opted to have this contract bottled in Auckland in the first instance," company director Paul Thompson said.

"On an ongoing basis, Zodiac will be taking further quantities of ground water for the purpose of bottling and sale in New Zealand."

The Whatitiri Maori Reserves Trust describes their water as being "stolen", to be shipped out for the profit of a private company with no roots in Northland and no cultural investment in the taonga that is the water. They are not the only hapu or community dealing with such concerns.

But they are despairing, feel let down, cast adrift, and exhausted.