A company investing tens of millions of dollars in avocado orchards in the Far North says jobs are being lost and investment put at risk because the Northland Regional Council is ''dragging its heels'' on water use consents.
That is denied by the council, which says historic aquifer level errors and the Covid-19 crisis caused the delays, and that consent hearings will start late next month.
Groundwater use has become a contentious issue in the Houhora area where 24 landowners have applied to take up to 6.4 million cubic metres a year from the Aupōuri aquifer.
A total of 113 submissions have been received with the majority opposed to increased water take.
The applications are from avocado growers who say the amount applied for is a fraction of the water entering the aquifer each year, and that converting pasture into orchards means many more jobs in the cash-strapped Far North.
One of the biggest investors is Mapua Orchards, which is developing more than 400ha around Houhora and Waiharara.
General manager Ian Broadhurst said the company had taken a multimillion-dollar leap of faith ahead of new water permits being granted but the council seemed intent on ''dragging its heels''.
As the process dragged into its third year orchards were re-negotiating existing, smaller water consents to keep seedlings alive and cutting back expansion plans, he said.
Years worth of hydrological work had shown the requested water take was a fraction of aquifer recharge, and fell well within allocation levels allowed in the regional plan.
"We can't do anything without water ... This is holding up developments that are essentially shovel-ready. They could be generating jobs that are sorely needed in Northland, but instead they're parked or being reconsidered due to unnecessary delays.''
Regional council consents manager Stuart Savill rejected claims the authority was ''dragging its heels''.
The applications were received between February 2018 and August 2019 with submissions closing on November 1 last year.
Later that month the council discovered historic errors in its groundwater data — the water level under Houhora was 2.5m lower than previously thought — so bores had to be resurveyed and models rerun with the new measurements.
The Covid-19 lockdown had occurred during the same period, Savill said.
Two commissioners had been appointed to consider the evidence and make a decision. They would hear 53 oral submissions in Kaitaia from August 31 to September 4.
Northland businesses affected by the delays include Kaitaia-based Far North Roading, which has recently branched into avocado orchard development.
Managing director Manu Burkhardt-Macrae said the company would have to win other work or cut back its workforce of about 70 staff and 20 subcontractors if the delays continued.
Further afield Lynwood Avocado Nursery in Whangārei had already lost orders for 30,000 trees because of delays in the consenting process, founder Stephen Wade said.
With each cloned tree fetching about $50 the financial implications were significant, and the company had already made five staff redundant due to the drop in orders.
The largest applicant in the Aupōuri Aquifer Water Users Group is Te Aupōuri Commercial Development, the trading arm of Te Aupōuri iwi, which has applied for an annual take of 1.17 million cubic metres to convert its 260ha beef farm into horticulture.
Those opposed to increased water take from the aquifer fear it could lead to saltwater incursion, which would make bore water unusable.
Water campaigner Karyn Nikora-Kerr, of Ngataki, said the council shouldn't even consider issuing new consents until the monitoring period for the last batch of consents was complete.
In 2018 the Environment Court gave approval to 17 landowners, known as the Motutangi-Waiharara Water Users Group, to take up to 2 million cubic metres a year from the aquifer.
However, the approval was subject to raft of conditions, which included monitoring salinity, groundwater levels and wetlands over a nine-year period, and the initial water take was set at 0.5 million cubic metres.
Nikora-Kerr said the council should have followed the Environment Court's lead and rejected the latest application until the monitoring period for the Motutangi-Waiharara consents, which has another seven years to run, was complete.