ECan’s $3000 charge for water information

A $3000 charge is being demanded by Canterbury’s regional council for information about water allocation.

Newsroom asked Environment Canterbury to provide the percentage allocation of each water “zone” and how many water consents have been granted or renewed since the over-allocated areas reached 100 percent. We also asked for those consents to be quantified.

In a response under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA), ECan’s science director Stefanie Rixecker says that information will take a large amount of work to collate and it would charge $2964. That’s based on 39 hours of work at $38 per half hour.

The council has agreed to provide, for free, the current percentage allocation of each of Canterbury’s water zones – but says it’s not information that is readily available and will take some time to compile.

Forest & Bird’s Canterbury/West Coast regional manager Jen Miller says the information requested by Newsroom is not only useful for the public to know, it might help ECan do its job better.

“That’s an extraordinary charge for information that I would envisage is very important for people to know about.”

She says it’s not surprising ECan doesn’t know the answer to the question, adding: “And I’m concerned about that, too.”

Selwyn artist Mike Glover, who last year protested the poor state of the Selwyn River (Waikerikeri), says: “You’d think they’d have that sort of information at their fingertips. It’s pretty outrageous that they would charge a news organisation for finding out ... isn’t it? It almost seems like a deliberate way of stopping the information getting out there.”

Water issues are hugely controversial in Canterbury. Agricultural lobby groups talk up the economic benefits of land irrigation, especially as climate change is starting to bite. But others point to low river flows, increasingly common algal blooms and the threat of nitrates in water as signs the environment can’t cope with more farming.

The issue is also political. ECan’s councillors were sacked by the previous government in 2010, partly because of their inability to put together a water management plan. Opponents called it a water grab.

"It almost seems like a deliberate way of stopping the information getting out there.”

Seven years on, ECan is governed by a mix of government appointees and elected councillors. A cairn made of rocks from South Island rivers still sits in Cathedral Square, the result of a 2010 protest which attracted thousands of people.

ECan’s $3000 demand comes amidst national debate about transparency and openness of the new Government, over a coalition deal document it refuses to release, and whether it will continue the attitude of previous administrations of keeping the official information shutters down.

LGOIMA’s purpose is to “increase progressively the availability to the public of official information held by local authorities” and to “promote the accountability of local authority and members and officials”.

University of Otago law professor Paul Roth says: “We all know that these agencies like to play their little games to defeat that purpose. The media is not given any special status here in gaining access.”

ECan’s Rixecker says the council does its best to avoid charging for official information requests.

“However, when the information requested would take an excessive amount of time to compile – in this case we estimate 40 hours – we may charge fees to compensate for the work required. We believe this is reasonable as responding to the request would require considerable staff time that would otherwise be ratepayer-funded.”

ECan has offered Newsroom the chance to narrow its request and offered a meeting with its chief scientist – who, ECan admits, would not have provided the information sought.

Rixecker: “We are disappointed you are not willing to engage in that process.”

Irrigation NZ’s chief executive Andrew Curtis says he thinks ECan has started charging for LGOIMA responses because it has had so many requests. Previously, it “mistakenly” gave out raw data, which was up for interpretation; Irrigation NZ has asked ECan to provide explanations with its data.

Curtis’s understanding is, under new water rules, it’s not possible to apply for new consents – although some high-flow takes to storage might be available.

“In the old days there were issues when it was fully allocated, it was non-complying activity under the Resource Management Act. Somebody could put in an application and prove that there was still some water available. And if you had a clever enough lawyer and a clever enough consultant, sometimes you’d get some water. But nowadays, because of its prohibited activity status, that can’t happen.”

He adds: “If you come across any stuff that’s been given out in a fully-allocated zone we’d love to know about it, because we won’t be happy about that.”

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