Time for a back-to-basics approach to water consents
Simplifying water consents by going back to basics would:
Make them easier to manage, for everyone, reducing costs.
Reduce uncertainty about what you can and cannot do and provide greater clarity about compliance.
Enable longer-term consents, reducing costs for all parties.
Under the Resource Management Act, you can’t take water and you can’t use water unless you have the necessary consents (unless the activity is permitted in some other way). Current practice for almost all regional authorities is to bundle everything up into a water “take and use” consent.
As pressure on rivers and aquifers has increased, so too has the complexity of the conditions included in each “take and use” consent. We know, through our experience as consultants, that complex consent conditions often create ambiguities in what can and can’t be done and make compliance monitoring almost impossible. This is particularly so where there are multiple water supply bores on a farm.
Greater complexity means greater cost to prepare and process consent applications and monitor compliance once a consent is granted.
When you boil it down, what is needed is permission to take a share of the total flowrate or volume of water allocated for taking, permission to build and operate an intake structure or bore, and permission to use water. Issuing separate consents for each of these would greatly simplify matters.
The primary purpose of the Allocation Consent should be to manage the cumulative effects of all water taken from a river or aquifer and provide fair access to the water made available for taking. The scope of the conditions in an allocation consent would be limited to these matters.
The primary purpose of the Water Take Structure Consent should be to manage the localised effects on the water source and other water takes of the operation of an intake structure, and to apply conditions such as requiring water metering on all takes and fish screens on river intakes. The scope of the conditions in the take structure consent would be limited to these site-specific matters.
The primary purposes of the Water Use Consent should be to manage the effects of using water, such as increasing drainage, and to apply the ‘reasonable and efficient use’ requirement of the RMA. The scope of the conditions in the water use consent would be limited to these matters.
The water take structure consent and the water use consent are site and property specific, respectively. Changes to these are not likely to be required very often, so they should be long-term consents. The allocation consent is the one that is most likely to change over time, as knowledge of the capacity of a river or aquifer to supply water improves.
Tightly defining the scope of each of these consents narrows the issues that need to be addressed in a consent application, reducing the risk of time being spent on extraneous matters and costs blowing out. It also reduces the risk that an application to change a condition in a water take structure consent, for example, opens the door for a Council to change conditions in a water use consent.
I’ve heard it said that replacing a single take-and-use consent application with an application for three separate consents will triple the cost of applying for consents. This ought not to be the case because no more work is required of the applicant and the Council. In fact, less work should be required.