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Environment Canterbury elections cancelled as commissioners appointed

Tuesday 30th March 2010

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The government is stepping in to take charge of festering Canterbury water management issues by sacking the regional councillors on Environment Canterbury and replacing them with a commission led by public sector fix-it woman Dame Margaret Bazley.

Regional council elections scheduled for November this year will be cancelled in the Canterbury region to allow the four to six member commission to complete the task that will be set out for them in special legislation to be passed under urgency by Parliament this week.

A start date for the commissioners will be established within the next month, along with detailed terms of reference and special legislation to be rushed through Parliament this week will give them until October 2013 to complete the task, in time for that year's round of local body elections.

The announcements by Environment and Local Government Ministers Nick Smith and Rodney Hide follow a damning report of ECan's failure over the last two decades to bring a coherent approach to managing water in the country's most stressed catchment.  Some 70% of all allocated irrigation water is in Canterbury, much of its water is over-allocated, and there are growing irrigation, hydro-electric and water storage demands.

A water plan for Canterbury was the most urgent priority for the commissioners, said Smith. 

“This is a task that has been needed since the passing of the Resource Management Act in 1991 but it is still years away. Thousands of consents are being processed in an ad hoc way without any proper framework. Powers will be given to commissioners to fast track the completion of the plan.  

“The Commissioners will also be given powers to impose targeted moratoria on water take consents and to make decisions on water conservation orders. This is to ensure they have all the tools at their disposal to deliver the step change required to effectively manage Canterbury’s water." 

At this stage, however, the government is not picking up the Creech report's other major recommendation: the formation of a special Canterbury Water Authority. 

Instead, Smith says the government will wait until after the reportback from the national water policy consensus-building exercise, the Land and Water Forum, as well as work on establishing the Environmental Protection Authority, other official advice, and consultation with local communities. 

Instead, the Environment Canterbury Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management Bill will give legal status to the Canterbury Water Management Strategy, a stakeholder-led strategic plan developed in response to Ecan's failure to produce such a strategy itself. 

Legal recognition for the strategy will require its formal recognition by commissioners as they make decisions.   

Other special powers for commissioners will allow fast-tracked completion of regional plans for Canterbury, meaning that appeals will be limited to points of law to the High Court and not the Environment Court; provide powers to impose targeted moratoria on water take consents in areas that are near to or are fully allocated, subject to Smith's consent; and the power to determine water conservation orders instead of going to a special tribunal, although the Environment Minister will remain the final decision-maker. 

This will have a particular impact on the Hurunui water storage scheme proposal, which is subject to competing processes of resource consent application and Water Conservation Order hearings. The Bill referes the Hurunui WCO to the new commissioners. 


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