The Waitaki River may well soon be as familiar to New Zealanders as Lake Manapouri became in the early 1970s when protests stopped its water level being raised for power generation.

The Waitaki, a long, braided river that meets the sea north of Oamaru, is the subject of a political battle that will pit environmentalists against developers.

For a few months, the battlefront is shifting to Parliament.

Meridian Energy, the state-owned power generator and retailer, wants to build a 60km canal and six new dams on the lower Waitaki.

The upper reaches already have eight power stations, including Benmore, Aviemore, Waitaki, Ohau and Tekapo.

The $1.2 billion Meridian proposal, dubbed Project Aqua, is the largest hydro-power development plan since the controversial Clyde River dam of the early 1980s.

The project is so big that the Government has introduced a bill to set up a body which will decide who can and can't use the river for what.

Supporters say the bill is bringing order to what would be an otherwise messy process on a matter of national importance - security of power supply.

Opponents say the Government is playing favourites, giving its own company a fast-track route through the Resource Management Act where private companies can become bogged down in red tape.

Consents for river use are usually made by local authorities under the Resource Management Act.

But it has no provision for handling a multitude of competing claims together.

At least 40 applications have been made to various councils on Project Aqua and a Meridian irrigation scheme, and a further 37 relate to other irrigation proposals.

Without the proposed legislation, decisions on water use would be made in the order in which they were lodged rather than taking a "whole-of-river" approach.

The Resource Management (Waitaki Catchment) Amendment Bill gives the Government huge powers.

Environment Minister Marian Hobbs, will appoint a panel of commissioners to consider applications for the Waitaki.

The panel will have the functions and powers of a consenting authority.

Before that happens, the minister will appoint up to five people to the Waitaki Catchment Water Allocation Board.

Their job will be to come up with a framework on which the commissioners will make their decisions.

That could include setting minimum and maximum river flows.

The board's decision can be appealed, but under the bill must be given a "priority fixture" by the Environment Court.

The bill gives the minister substantial powers. She appoints the commissioners, the board and its chairman and deputy, sets timelines, specifies people the board must consult and may "set any other matters the minister thinks fit".

The Government has voiced no position on Project Aqua.

National and New Zealand First have no position on Project Aqua, but oppose the Waitaki River bill because they believe it is favouritism.

Act supports Project Aqua but opposes the bill for the same reason.

The Greens oppose Project Aqua, but will support the bill at least to a select committee, arguing that at least it is the start of a process to sort out the mess.

United has no fixed position on the Aqua project, but will support the bill at least going to the select committee and is inclined to support it overall.

No one in the Government would say last night which parliamentary committee will consider the bill.

The local government and environment committee is the most logical, but it is chaired by Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, who won't give it an easy ride.

The other options are the commerce or education and science committees, neither of which has a Green MP.

Three views on the Waitaki River bill

* Marian Hobbs, Minister for the Environment - "This bill is needed to achieve equitable, expedient and transparent decisions and to enable more strategic decisions to be made. The bill is not about reinventing the Resource Management Act."

* Jeanette Fitzsimons, Greens co-leader - "If it is a genuine attempt to protect the values of the Waitaki itself and the interests of the local community, then we support it. But if it's just another way of fast-tracking Project Aqua and a few major irrigation schemes, then we have serious concerns."

* Nick Smith, National environment spokesman - "They are writing the rules to suit themselves and they are cutting across the roles of councils and citizens in that process. This bill is designed to do one thing - and that is to get approval for Project Aqua."

Making Law

Title: Resource Management (Waitaki Catchment) Amendment Bill

Description: The bill sets up a body to consider water-use consents for the Waitaki River and catchment. The area is the subject of a $1.2 billion proposal by Meridian Energy for a 60km canal, six new hydro stations and several irrigation schemes.

Progress: The bill was introduced last week, and will get its first reading today or tomorrow. It will then be referred to a select committee for public submissions next year.

Herald Feature: Conservation and Environment

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