Aupōuri Aquifer consents granted
A landmark decision regarding a group of consent applications to take water from one of the Far North's most prized assets has been granted.
Northland Regional Council announced yesterday that independent commissioners had granted two dozen consent applications, mainly by Far North avocado growers, to take millions of litres of water from the Aupōuri Aquifer to irrigate their crops.
Independent Hearings Commissioner David Hill (chairman) and Peter Callander granted the applications to the NRC by 22 people referred to as the Aupōuri Aquifer Water User Group (AAWUG).
The Aupōuri Aquifer is a source of underground water stretching roughly from Ahipara in the south to Ngataki in the north.
The consent granted to AAWUG was subject to a raft of conditions designed to protect the aquifer resources growers would be taking water from.
The total volume of groundwater being sought by the applications was 4,606,260 cubic metres annually, which equated to 1.9 per cent of the estimated 238 million cubic metres used by NRC to allocate water from the overall Aupōuri aquifer system.
According to expert evidence, the proposed groundwater take was only 0.16 per cent of the estimated 2850 million cubic metres of groundwater stored within the aquifer in an average year.
In the end, the commissioners granted a total of 4,519,984 cubic metres a year.
Te Aupōuri Commercial Development Ltd was the largest recipient of water granted and is set to receive an annual volume of 1,170,000 m3 per year.
Te Aupōuri Runanga CEO Mariameno Kapa Kingi said the decision was watershed day for Te Aupōuri.
"Our tribe is delighted to receive this positive news that our water consent application to draw 10,400 cubic metres a day has been approved," Kingi said.
"The statutory Resource Management Act process has been highly contested and many scientists have made submissions on the best use of our aquifer resource.
"The independent commissioners operating under the Resource Management Act (RMA) have determined that our tribe can sustainably use this water, create jobs and generate better economic returns in the Far North".
"We will not be making any investments until the statutory appeal period has passed."
Kingi said their application had been opposed by the Department of Conservation (DoC) and it was therefore possible further permits would be required in order to establish bores and other related infrastructure.
She said the runanga appreciated the aquifer water resource was a valuable part of the local environment and as a major landowner, recognised the importance of improved water management and utilisation.
"Indeed on our whenua we have a host of wetland features, water storage bodies and dune lakes," Kingi said.
"The durability of such taonga is a critical part of the kaitiakitanga ethic which is an integral part of our Te Aupōuri tikanga.
"It has to be said however this is a memorable decision and will greatly aid the economic aspirations of our peninsula community."
Key issues raised in submissions included long-term impacts on the aquifer, effect on existing bores, water quality and contamination, ecological impacts, salt water intrusion, cultural considerations and a number of other issues.
The commissioners acknowledged the concerns raised by many submitters and said they were all valid issues that must be guarded against.
"We acknowledge concerns regarding the risks of these applications abstracting too much water creating risks to surface waterways, lakes, wetlands, drinking water wells, causing subsidence or threatening the whole viability of the Aupōuri aquifer," they said.
"However, while the sum total abstraction sought was large in terms of quantity, the evidence clearly indicates it is relatively small in comparison to the annually available 'throughput' of the aquifer and is sustainable from that point of view."
Department of Conservation Kaitaia operations manager Meirene Hardy-Birch said DOC had received the decision and was taking time to understand it.
"DoC has a statutory responsibility to advocate for the conservation of natural and historic resources, both on and off land or waters managed by DoC," Birch said.
"We are hopeful that the decision reflects a considered approach to the concerns that have been raised.
"We also hope the decisions are cognisant of not just the economic, social factors but cater to the actual, potential including cumulative effects to the waterbodies, vegetation and wildlife that will be placed at risk.
"The New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement seeks to avoid adverse effects on threatened species and ecosystems in the coastal environment.
"The down-catchment Kaimaumau wetlands (Public Conservation Land (PCL) managed by DoC) are of national and international importance, so the effects that groundwater abstraction poses on the wetland and other areas of PCL are uncertain, and robust conditions are needed to sustain water levels.
"Furthermore, there are significant surface water features at-risk from the ecological effects of the hydrological alteration of nearby surface and ground water dependant ecosystems.
"These include drying out of wetland areas, changes in dune lake levels, more frequent low flows in streams and harm to threatened fish species, such as the Northland brown mudfish (threatened status- nationally vulnerable)."
Two independent review panels are set to be established, one made up of two irrigation experts and a second independent review panel comprising of a hydrogeologist and an ecologist, to "adequately cover concerns regarding wetlands".
The panels could then make recommendations if changes were required to the monitoring regime, to the trigger level values, or if reductions in abstraction rates were required to avoid unacceptable effects.
The consents will run for 12 years until November 2033, which coincides with the expiry dates of the previously granted MWWUG groundwater take consents.
The commissioners' decision is open to appeal for 15 working days.