Lake Rotorua may be the next body of water given the same rights as a person, in a renewed bid to prevent treated wastewater from ending up in the lake.

Renee Kiriona, of Ngāti Uenukukōpako, has launched a petition calling on Te Arawa Lakes Trust to "do everything it can" to stop a Rotorua Lakes Council from discharging 20 million litres of treated sewage into the lake every day for the next 30 years.

The council has proposed treated wastewater be disposed of into the lake via a land contact bed, as opposed to spraying it in Whakarewarewa Forest.

It is linked to a proposed treatment plant upgrade which includes increased capacity and provision of storm flow storage and further treatment including additional phosphorus removal, ultra-filtration and UV treatment before disposal.

Land contact bed is a filtration system that is designed to mimic natural geological filtration, using aeration, rocks and wetland vegetation.

Council infrastructure manager Stavros Michael said as an Environment Court hearing on the proposal was pending, it would be "inappropriate for [the] council to comment".

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The ActionStation-hosted petition, which had 2150 signatures on Tuesday, also called for Te Arawa to push for a law that would see Lake Rotorua follow the Whanganui River in attaining legal personhood.

Kiriona called the proposed changes a "dirty, disgusting plan".

Renee Kiriona. Photo / Stephen Parker
Renee Kiriona. Photo / Stephen Parker

She said she did not believe the claim that the water processed in the upgraded treatment plant would be cleaner than the water already in the lake.

"I don't believe them. Prove it to us. I say to the councillors, are you going to test it? Are you going to put your mokopuna in there?"

She said she was willing to be proven wrong and would say sorry if she was, but so far she had not seen evidence the water would be safe for the lake.

Kiriona believed it was a matter of money as there were other options where the treated water could be rerouted and filtered through the earth, such as Mamaku and Whakapoungakau.

"We need to stop the madness and find a land-based solution."

Kiriona would present the petition, which she hoped would reach around 5000 signatures, to Te Arawa leadership.

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From there, she hoped the iwi would lobby not just to halt the changes to the treatment plant, but for a government-sponsored bill to grant the lake legal personhood.

"It's much harder to crap on something that has personhood rights."

Rotorua Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo / File
Rotorua Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo / File

She hoped to avoid a Treaty of Waitangi process, which she said was the "exhausting" way.

The council did not specifically respond to Kiriona's comments.

Te Arawa Lakes Trust chief executive Karen Vercoe reserved commenting until the Environment Court process had "run its course".

The trust had submitted against the proposed discharge at the end of 2018.

"We are not in a position to be able to comment further, including on any wider activities by others in the community, while this project goes through the Environment Court process."

Bay of Plenty Regional Council consents manager Reuben Fraser said the resource consent process set out to consider potential environmental effects from a proposed activity.

"As you can imag[ine], with an application as complex as this, the assessment involved considering a significant volume of information prepared by dozens of experts."

The regional council would provide a report to the Environment Court setting out its position in relation to these effects and would share it publicly once it had been completed.

Regional council strategic engagement manager Kataraina O'Brien said any discussion around making Lake Rotorua a legal person or entity was a "matter for the relevant iwi".

The regional council had an "open door policy" and would be happy to engage with iwi partners on "any matters in relation to this kaupapa", she said.

Waiariki MP Tamati Coffey and Ngā Tāngata Tiaki o Whanganui have been approached for comment.

What has happened so far?
Prior to 2017 - Rotorua Lakes Council and CNI make a commitment to end spraying treated wastewater in Whakarewarewa Forest by 2019. Discharging into the forest was considered no longer viable due to cultural concerns and ground over-saturation.
April 2017 - the initial land contact bed design is signed off. The upgraded plant is expected to handle more than 70 million litres of wastewater - three times more than the current capacity of the plant.
May - November 2017 - Mātauranga Māori (Māori wisdom) experts advise the project, hapū, iwi and significant stakeholders engagement is undertaken and a cultural impact assessment is completed.
December 2017 - the draft resource consent application is filed with regional council for pre-lodgement review
August 2018 - the application is reviewed by the regional and district councils, lead by the former. Ten consents are sought by the regional council and five by the Rotorua Lakes Council. Rotorua Lakes Council refers resource consents directly to the Environment Court.
October - November 2018 - the public submission period. Submissions report is compiled for the Environment Court. In November, Te Arawa Lakes Trust submits against all five Rotorua Lakes Council consents, which relate to the discharge into the lake. Te Arawa Lakes Trust owns the lake bed, while the water column is owned by the Crown.
Next - Environment Court hearing date to be set.

What does 'legal personhood' mean for a natural resource?

When a natural resource, such as the Whanganui River (or Lake Rotorua) is granted legal personhood, it means the natural resource attains the same rights as a person.

One implication of that is that the natural resource can be represented in a court.

The National Library website states that for the Whanganui River (Te Awa Tupua), decisions that affect it "must recognise the river's legal status and its health and well-being".

Te Awa Tupua's legal personhood was attained by law through a Treaty of Waitangi settlement, and the river given two guardians - the Crown and Whanganui River iwi.

A Tūhoe settlement in 2013 recognised Te Urewera National Park as a legal entity with all the rights of a person.

The land is not legally owned by anyone but jointly managed by the Crown and Tūhoe.