Massive extent of water crime in Canterbury revealed in OIA data

Information sourced by Forest & Bird details the massive scale of water-crime in Canterbury, with hundreds of instances where irrigators were engaged in brazen and often repeat offending, and the lack of credible enforcement action from ECan, despite officers having caught many offenders red-handed.    

It has previously been reported that ECan has not fined or prosecuted in any of the 376 instances that irrigators were found to be in serious breach of their water consent conditions, during the 13-14 irrigation season.

This new data reveals the vast quantities of water being uplifted illegally by Canterbury irrigators, the hundreds of instances where irrigators were caught without functioning water meters, and that ECan failed to take any credible enforcement action in the face of this environmental crime-wave.

Examples of the seriousness of these instances include the following:

  • A serious repeat offender was noted by ECan as “continuously overusing” water “throughout the season and for the last three seasons.” This person received an abatement notice.
  • An irrigator who was found to have illegally uplifted thirty-one million litres (31,000,000l) of water from the Manuka Creek over 42 separate days. Forty of those days were during low flow restrictions, when rivers were already at their most parched.  This person received an abatement notice.
  • As a result of a public complaint about Wairepo Creek running dry, a site inspection was made and the irrigator was noted as having multiple serious non-compliances issues including exceeding water flow, and using water for the wrong purposes. This person received an abatement notice.
  • A monitoring officer noted to a consent holder that ‘The total combined flow rate…exceeded 102 l/s for 1082 hours with an average overuse of 45.41 l/s per hour, 45% greater than your consented limit… Your overuse is significantly greater than that permitted by your resource consents, therefore we have decided to issue you with an abatement notice...’.

"Let’s be clear - these are serious environmental crimes that are punishable by fines and prison sentences under the Resource Management Act, yet ECan seems unwilling to do much more than issue abatement notices, which it then fails to enforce,” says Forest & Bird's Christchurch-based Senior Legal Counsel, Peter Anderson.

“Several of these instances deal with repeat offenders; one has been noted as having illegally taken water for at least the last three seasons, and ECan still had not prosecuted them.”

“Elsewhere in New Zealand abatement notices are taken very seriously. However, in Canterbury irrigators seem to be able to be ignore them with impunity.” 

In other instances of offending, dozens of irrigators were caught without functioning water meters.

"Without a functioning meter, irrigators are free to take as much water from the local rivers and aquifers as they like without anyone knowing," says Mr Anderson

“It is a standard condition of consents that the irrigator must, before taking any water, install a water meter, and have a tamper proof electronic recording devise. There is simply no excuse for taking the water for months or even years before installing a water meter.”

Examples of the failure to properly use or install water meters include the following:

  • One person’s illegal water take was so large, recorded to be 186,900,000l over a year, that the monitoring officer wasn’t sure if the water meter was working properly or not. They wrote to the consent holder “This consent is for a large water take and the potential of a third irrigation season without accurate water data is unacceptable. For this reason I have issued an Abatement Notice.”
  • ECan’s monitoring team wrote to one of these offenders “As you are now 22 months overdue to complete the metering requirements … we have decided to issue you with an abatement notice ...’.
  • In another case of repeat offending, the officer noted “The attached water use report shows major overuse in May and June 2014 so I consider this data to be inaccurate. There were issues with faulty water meters last year also. For this reason I have issued an Abatement Notice.”

"While irrigators can continue to breach consents with impunity Forest & Bird  expect there will be no improvement in the dry and polluted rivers that have become commonplace in Canterbury under the Government-appointed ECan commissioners," says Mr Anderson.

"ECan Commissioner David Caygill recently questioned whether anyone takes ECan notices seriously. The data demonstrates that many consent-holders do not, because ECan has given them next to no reason to do so."

“Commissioner Caygill’s recent indication that ECan should treat consent breaches more seriously is welcome, but until ECan starts taking strong enforcement action we will continue to see irrigators ripping off their neighbours, their community, and the wildlife that depends on Canterbury’s rivers and waterways.”

* For comparison, Avon River at Gloucester Street averages around 1,500 litres a second at normal flows.