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NZ govt urged to sack Environment Canterbury, appoint commissioners

Friday 19th February 2010

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The elected regional councillors of Environment Canterbury should be replaced as soon as possible by government-appointed commissioners, says a special review group which found ECan profoundly under-prepared to manage the region's highly contested water resources.  

The commissioners should then establish a new body, the Canterbury Regional Water Authority, to manage all current ECan responsibilities relating to water, says the review, which was headed by former National Party Minister Wyatt Creech and appointed by the Ministers of Environment and Local Government, Nick Smith and Rodney Hide.

While Ministers say they are so far only "considering" the recommendations, ECan's dismissal appears almost inevitable unless the ECan councillors resign first.  A meeting is scheduled next Wednesday between ECan, Smith, and Hide, in Christchurch.  The report was "very concerning", Smith said.

Prime Minister John Key said in his speech opening Parliament last Tuesday that there would be "action this year to remove particular regulatory roadblocks to water storage and irrigation in Canterbury", in addition to the complete water policy review occurring under the Land and Water Forum.

However, it remains to be seen whether the creation of a new, hybrid local government agency will be favoured over other options, including the early involvement of the newly Environmental Protection Authority.

Either way, Canterbury voters look unlikely to be voting for a new regional council in local body elections this year, since the review group recommends leaving commissioners in place for as long as it takes to get a new approach to water management in place.

"This is an important long term decision about the right water structure," Smith said. "Is it a separate water authority, how that fits in with RMA phase two reforms, the EPA, and the Land and Water Forum process."

Doug Martin, a highly experienced public sector management consultant and member of the review team, said: "In my experience, I have not come across such a gap in capability" at all levels of the organisation for handling water management issues.

Creech said the issue had languished for the best part of two decades without ECan getting on top of it, which prompted the region's 10 mayors to seek government intervention, leading to the review.  The only major water allocation in recent times was for the Waitaki River catchment, and had required government intervention.

"Despite the passage of 18 years since the enactment of the Resource Management Act, Canterbury does not have an operative region-wide planning framework," the review report said. "The absence of an over-arching planning and policy framework for the region has resulted in a piecemeal, fragmented and inefficient approach to the management of freshwater."

However, Creech gave a "big tick" to the recently formulated Canterbury Water Strategy, in which ECan was a major participant.

The strategy "is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition" for improving the way Canterbury water is managed, said Martin.

Canterbury water is the most heavily used in the country, accounting for 70% of all water allocated nationally, and includes half the available water storage for hydro-electricity, itself responsible for 60% to 70% of national needs.




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