Irrigation talks raise DoC staff ire

Department of Conservation staff were “uncomfortable” with negotiations over a farm irrigation consent. David Williams reports

When Brent Thomas hears the Department of Conservation is opposed to his latest irrigation consent at Kaitorete Spit he hits the roof.

It’s May, and the Canterbury farmer, who made national headlines last year for killing almost a third of the national population of a rare native shrub, tororaro (Muehlenbeckia astonii), gets straight on the phone to the province's top DoC manager, Andy Roberts. Thomas says he’s upset at being blindsided, and seeks a face-to-face meeting at which he demands DoC withdraw its opposition.

The withdrawal is something Thomas asks for several times in the coming months, but DoC holds firm. It does, however, accede to his wish for DoC to negotiate directly with his company, Wongan Hills Ltd, and its experts, over possible consent conditions.

As a result of court action taken by the conservation lobby group Forest & Bird over the tororaro destruction, the department is already in talks with Thomas over a possible purchase of some of the coastal farm, just south of the city. Because of this, Thomas feels DoC’s opposition to his consent, to take additional water for his already-irrigated farm, is a breach of good faith. DoC only made the informal submission at the request of the regional council, ECan.

Wongan Hills’ original consent, to irrigate 202 hectares of its 968ha farm, was approved by ECan last year. More than 1.1 million cubic metres can be taken from groundwater annually. Two centre pivots were installed in a paddock adjacent to a unique and vulnerable 171ha scientific reserve, which contains internationally significant dryland habitats. (Kaitorete is home to at least 30 species of threatened or rare plants, birds, and invertebrates.)

With the top-up consent, seeking approval to transfer about 250,000 cubic metres of water takes from two other farms to Kaitorete Spit, DoC spies a chance to make conservation gains by getting stricter conditions on the original consent. But first it has to overcome the objections of its own staff.

Department of Conservation staff are worried about the effects of intensive farming on the scientific reserve at Kaitorete Spit. Photo: David Williams

Emails released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show that, in June of this year, a DoC staff member writes to their bosses about “significant reservations”, and being “very uncomfortable”, with the plan to agree consent conditions with Thomas.

The DoC staffer, whose name is redacted, warns Andy Thompson, the operations manager of the Christchurch-based Mahaanui office, that DoC might “seriously undermine ECan”, which is considering the consent. The department could also face “serious reputational risk”, they say. Senior ECan staff and people spoken to at the city council are concerned.

These objections take place amidst allegations that dryland areas on the Thomas farm are being damaged by roaming cattle. A few months later, DoC complains to the city council about more possible illegal clearance of indigenous clearance, this time on a roadside area closer to Lake Ellesmere.

Internal emails suggest DoC’s strategy is to use the negotiations over the “top-up” irrigation consent to get changes to conditions of the existing consent. However, the staff member tells Thompson: “Based on technical planning and ecological advice, and with our conversation with ECan staff, no amount of mitigation (consent conditions) would be able to address the significant effects of this activity.”

Thompson digs in. He writes that he’s acting on direction from his boss, Roberts, the operations director for the eastern South Island. “My line manager has been clear,” Thompson writes in the email, copying in Roberts. “I am not here to debate the merits of this with you over and over again.”

Roberts tries to break the tension, calling for an urgent discussion. “I think that not everyone is dealing with the same context, and I note that it has been very challenging to get team members from all groups attending the context meetings.” (Technical and planning staff are “under the gun”, Thompson’s subordinate writes, questioning why the department is trying to meet Thomas’s tight timeframes.)

Negotiations continue. In July, DoC sends a letter to Thomas. The department still opposes the consent, the letter says, but it is “generally satisfied” with revised conditions, and makes further comments and recommendations.

A buffer area between the irrigated paddock at Kaitorete Spit and conservation land. Photo: David Williams

It was the clearing and spraying, last year, of three of the Kaitorete Spit farm’s eight main paddocks, to plant oats, that destroyed the shrubby tororaro and catapulted Thomas’s farm to national attention. (However, a DoC inspection in February of this year finds that most tororaro plants in one paddock have survived, leading to hopes of a slow recovery.)

In April, ECan approaches DoC for comment on the Thomas top-up irrigation consent. (The application says Wongan Hills has discussed monitoring for irrigation effects with the department, but that is untrue.)

DoC registers its opposition to the application a month later, and asks for it to be declined. The adjacent dryland systems are particularly vulnerable to the effects of irrigation, the informal submission says. The department criticises the “questionable” monitoring planned, and “deficiencies” in Wongan Hills’ ecological reports.

ECan zone delivery manager Paul Hulse confirms to Newsroom, via email, that the farm company is compliant with all consent conditions so far, including the irrigation system. The conditions focus on protecting indigenous biodiversity in the scientific reserve.

Thomas, who also responds by email, says there’s a “super conservative” 50-metre, no-irrigation zone, with the centre pivots shutting off using GPS, and running dry in that area. (Expert evidence referred to by DoC staff suggests a buffer zone of 200m might not even be enough to avoid the so-called “edge effects” of irrigation.)

A satellite view of paddock seven at Kaitorete Spit. Image: Google Maps

Newsroom asks Thomas why it is that satellite mapping suggests the pivots run close to the boundary, despite the no-irrigation zone. He replies that the setback is farmed as dry land, and that there had been “a very wet spring and early summer”.

(Hulse says the buffer zone programming for the pivot has been verified by a farm systems expert. “His assessment was that while he expected some teething issues with the commissioning of a new pivot last year, these have now been addressed.”)

Why was it so important for Wongan Hills to negotiate consent conditions directly with DoC? Thomas replies that bolstering existing monitoring conditions is in both their interests, and constructive progress is being made. He adds: “As our neighbour we and ECan felt it was best to deal directly with DoC rather than ECan being middle man.”

(However, DoC information says it is Thomas that asks ECan, in May, to suspend the top-up application – putting it on hold after learning of DoC’s opposition. Also, the idea of the negotiations being ECan’s idea jars with information from DoC staff that says ECan staff and managers are “very concerned” about the negotiations.)

Thomas says rain gauges are used to demonstrate the pivot’s GPS system is working. “We also have soil moisture probes read weekly by a water management company and humidity sensors.”

He adds: “We put a lot of work in at consenting stage to demonstrate our irrigation equipment would not produce spray drift.” Draft conditions discussed with DoC state that spray drift has to be “avoided” within the scientific reserve.

A rain gauge on a fence post at Kaitorete Spit. Photo: David Williams

Despite Wongan Hills’ assurances, ECan has decided to formally notify the top-up consent to four affected parties – DoC, Wairewa Rūnanga, Te Taumutu Rūnanga, and Te Rūnanga o Ngai Tahu. The submission period closed last week.

ECan’s Hulse says: “We have considered the proposals carefully, including the proposed mitigation, and believe the addition of more reliable water will increase the total amount of water being used on the Wongan Hills property.

“The increased total amount of water, especially during dry years, will cause potential adverse effects to the point where the applications warrant being limited notified to several directly affected parties.”

Existing irrigation on what’s known as paddock seven started just before Christmas last year. However, a baseline survey still isn’t completed.

Hulse says Wongan Hills submitted a baseline survey late last year but the regional council requested further information. Subsequently, it was decided monitoring should focus on public conservation land, rather than a buffer zone. “A timeline to complete this was agreed to before this season’s irrigation began.”

It’s still waiting on survey information from within the scientific reserve, Hulse says.

Cattle roam Brent Thomas’s farm at Kaitorete Spit, within sight of the Southern Alps. Photo: David Williams

Another Thomas company, Willesden Farms, was fined twice in quick succession for allowing cattle in a stream and wetland. Now, the city council confirms it is investigating Wongan Hills for a potential breach of district plan rules at Kaitorete.

City council head of regulatory compliance Tracey Weston won’t provide details. But she doesn’t need to – the original complaint, which came from DoC, is included in its 234-page Official Information Act response.

The August 16 message says: “The Department of Conservation is notifying the city council that it appears that there may be a breach of the indigenous vegetation clearance provisions of the CCC District Plan and/or the certificate of compliance that needs to be urgently assessed by the council.

“There appears to have been agrichemical spraying and ploughing in Paddock 11 east which has cleared indigenous vegetation.”

Thomas tells Newsroom that the area was sprayed and seeded as “maintenance of improved pasture”. “We are totally comfortable that we were operating within the plan. There was a small number of tussock cleared as part of the spraying and about 8-10 small clumps of the common Muehlenbeckia complexa – NO Muehlenbeckia astonii.”

Whatever the case, a further headache for authorities is that paddock 11 east, which is north of the irrigated paddock, was going to be used as a baseline monitoring site, to check for changes caused by irrigation.

DoC provides an emailed statement in the name of Mahaanui operations manager Andy Thompson – who over-ruled staff concerns about the direct talks with Wongan Hills. However, some of it’s a carbon copy of a comments given to Newsroom for our story in July, in the name of his line manager, Roberts.

The statement concludes: “This is a dynamic situation and we are continuing to monitor changes at Kaitorete as we work with the private landowner, Ngāi Tahu, Forest & Bird and other agencies on this issue.”

Vast changes have been made at the Kaitorete Spit farm over the last two years – a farm which, under the previous ownership of the Bayley family, was little changed in 100-odd years. It’s still unclear if those changes will doom the biggest national stronghold of tororaro shrubs.

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