Two Bay of Plenty orchard owners have each been fined $42,000 for unlawfully taking groundwater to irrigate their crops, including one who illegally sourced about 25 million litres of geothermal water.
The two orchardists were among five prosecuted by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council for unlawfully taking groundwater this year.
In sentencing decisions released on Thursday, Environment Court Judge David Kirkpatrick said failure to obtain resource consent to take groundwater over a certain limit “threatens the integrity” of the consenting system.
A resource consent is required to drill a groundwater bore into an aquifer and separate consents are needed to take and use more than 35 cubic metres of groundwater a day, or to take and use geothermal water.
The first sentencing decision relates to Aongatete-based Peter Stewart Holdings Limited, which earlier pleaded guilty in the Environment Court at Tauranga to unlawfully taking 25 million litres of geothermal water for use at its 59.23ha kiwifruit orchard at or near 71 Wright Rd.
The defendant admitted failing to apply for water-take consent before or after a bore was installed at the property in 2016 and its offending spanned 534 days between February 1, 2021, and July 19, 2022, the sentencing decision said.
When council enforcement officers inspected the property on July 19 last year, the water meter showed 25,741.74 cubic metres (about 25 million litres) of geothermal groundwater had been taken since early 2021. The defendant was issued an abatement notice on July 20, 2022.
During a further inspection on December 21, enforcement officers found geothermal water was being discharged from a white pipe into a storage pond.
The charge laid under the Resource Management Act carries a maximum fine of $600,000.
In Judge Kirkpatrick’s sentencing notes released to the Bay of Plenty Times, he said this defendant’s offending came to light after the council’s region-wide analysis of where bore drilling consents were granted but no water-take consents were sought.
Judge Kirkpatrick also said this prosecution highlighted “the importance of water resources” and the need for integrity in the consenting system so people knew what was being taken from aquifers and how the impact was managed.
“Failing to comply with that consenting system threatens its integrity, reducing the extent to which the regional council can exercise integrated management of the resource, and, cumulatively, reducing public confidence in the administration of the Regional Plan.”
The judge said he accepted the prosecutor’s submission there was "a commercial dimension” to this offending.
“Each time the tap was turned on the defendant must have known the water was being taken without consent.”
Peter Stewart Holdings was fined $42,000 – 90 per cent of which must be paid to the regional council – and ordered to pay $130 court costs and a solicitor fee of $113.
The second prosecution related to Woodland Orchards Limited, which earlier pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawfully taking 26,264 cubic metres of groundwater without resource consent.
Woodland, which owns a 26ha kiwifruit and avocado orchard in Tahawai about 4km north of Katikati, took excess groundwater on 97 occasions between December 8, 2021, and September 16, 2022. This offending was uncovered in a council site inspection on August 11 last year.
The enforcement officer found four full 30,000-litre water storage tanks connected to irrigation lines and sprinkler heads throughout the orchard.
An abatement notice was issued in September 2022 and Woodland was granted resource consent to take groundwater on June 23 this year.
In his sentencing notes, Judge Kirkpatrick said the purpose of the Resource Management Act is to promote sustainable management of natural and physical resources.
“I consider there was an element of wilful blindness in this offending, the defendants were aware of the need for resource consent. They should have been monitoring the scale of the take,” he said.
Woodland was fined $42,000 (90 per cent to the council) and also must pay $130 in court costs and a $113 solicitor fee.
These two prosecution cases come on the heels of Whakatāne-based Terahu Orchard Limited being fined $35,000 for illegally taking more than 18 million litres of water for irrigation between November 2021 and February 2023.
The Bay of Plenty Times also reported in May this year that two neighbouring Pongakawa kiwifruit orchardists were convicted of unlawfully taking millions of litres of groundwater to irrigate crops.
Maniatutu Heights Limited (MHL) pleaded guilty to taking nearly 8 million litres more water than legally permitted between September 14, 2021, and January 25, 2022.
MHL’s neighbour, David Grant Thomas, 55, also pleaded guilty to unlawfully taking 26 million litres of groundwater to irrigate a 216ha kiwifruit orchard on Pongakawa Bush Rd between December 22, 2020, and January 25, 2022.
Judge Kirkpatrick and Judge Sheena Tepania are yet to release their sentencing decisions on these two prosecution cases.
Sandra Conchie is a senior journalist at the Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua Daily Post who has been a journalist for 24 years. She mainly covers police, court and other justice stories, as well as general news. She has been a Canon Media Awards regional/community reporter of the year.