Wellington regional councillors realised how little power they have in managing consents for water bottling at an Environment Committee meeting today.
The council is currently considering a 30-year consent that would allow a private company to take 432 million litres a year from Lower Hutt’s groundwater for bottling.
There are two existing consents from the same aquifer to draw almost 950 million litres a year, as well as a consent in Upper Hutt to draw 180 million litres a year.
Public submitters at the start of the meeting made passionate pleas for the council to review and halt any unnecessary existing water take consents and place a moratorium on any new consents being issued.
Upper Hutt resident Tracy Ultra told the committee the fact that the consent went through without any public notification was underhanded and should be illegal.
“The public has been refused consultation which is in breach of democratic, civil and political rights. These facts are grounds to revoke the consent.
“I know you don’t have the authority or the process to revoke, so I say invent one, fight them.”
Ms Ultra asked the council to consider a number of actions.
“Amend the freshwater plan and cap allocations … ban plastic bottles, publicly notify new consents, the Upper Hutt consent expires in 2023, don’t renew it.”
However, the council’s environment regulation manager Shaun Andrewartha told the committee consents could only be reviewed if there was concern that the environment might be being harmed.
He said the council had no remit to decline a consent based on its intended purpose.
“The legislation itself doesn’t focus on who uses water and why, it’s environmental-effects based … these considerations around effects are very much the same if we’re considering them for a water-bottling plant, an irrigator in the Wairarapa and if we were dealing with a brewery in Upper Hutt as well.”
Currently, the Whaitua project is underway to examine water quality and supply in Wellington and at its completion in two years’ time, may suggest changes to the way water is allocated – which in turn could affect future water take consents.
However another public submitter Hutt resident and city council hopeful Chris Parkin said action was needed now, and two years was too far away.
“My worry is that we are going to end up finding that the Whaitua process is going to be too slow to stop these things happening.
“You will end up with a rush of consents, even the one we have is enough … the maximum [duration] should be five years to give some flexibility.”
While officials conceded they were tightly bound by the existing legislation – namely the Resource Management Act – and there were no grounds to review existing consents or impose a moratorium, councillors searched for options, clearly concerned that they did not hold much power in the matter.
Committee chair Sue Kedgley asked if action could be taken by amending the council’s regional policy statement or other policy.
“There is the potential in some way which we’re not clear of yet, to limit the length of term of a water take consent and to consider a policy around notifying consents. Are those two things we could do outside of the Whaitua process?”
However, that suggestion was quickly shot down with officials saying that those changes could land the council in legal hot water.
Officials assured the council that they were confident that the water allocations for both Upper Hutt and Lower Hutt were reasonable and that any changes could be made with the completion of the Whaitua project.
Council environment management group head Alistair Cross said any major changes around water-take consents had to come from central government but believed the existing framework was still appropriate and if the science proved that the water takes were affecting the environment, consents could be declined.
Councillor Prue Lamason told the committee it was staggering that the discussion around water take for water-bottling was happening straight after the council had just debated on whether or not to declare a climate emergency.
She said, on one hand, the council was having to think about big-picture climate policy, but on the other was hamstrung into “business as usual” around the likes of water take consents.
The decision was made to mull things over until the next meeting in six weeks time.
The Wellington Regional Council will vote on whether to declare a climate emergency on 21 August.