"This is how a river dies." High drama and dysfunction at the ORC

Aug 30, 2021

Analysis. Editor’s Introduction.

It’s hard for Crux to cover the Otago Regional Council from Queenstown. It’s not just the distance to their HQ and meetings in Dunedin, but a cultural battle that seems peculiar to the ORC. The battle features water users, farmers, irrigators, environmentalists and conservationists along with strong controversial characters such as Michael Laws and Marian Hobbs, both involved in an ugly coup last year.

But there’s more. The ORC seems at times hell bent on self-destruction and even managed to spend $10 million of ratepayer’s money on a failed attempt to find a new, grand headquarters for itself – with nothing to show for that money. Now the Central Otago Environmental Society has launched a petition calling on the Environment Minister, David Parker, to dismiss the entire Council.

Just when the entire saga seemed ready to descend into farce, Queenstown ORC councillor Alex Forbes has written a strong analysis piece, with a really amazing video, that sort of explains everything. She sees no point in the ORC being dismissed by the Minister and still holds out some hope (admittedly small) that the ORC will somehow get its act together and do the job it is paid to do.

After all, they just put up their rates by 49% and are sitting on cash and assets worth at least $700 million.

Read Alexa’s coverage – and weep or laugh – either way it’s an education in how local democracy is in deep trouble across the region.

From Alexa Forbes, ORC Dunstan Ward/Queenstown Councillor.

Read her full blog here (with attachments and links) or skip to Alexa's excellent video summary here.

"The future of the Manuherekia River, and so that of the communities which surround and rely on it, was the subject of hours of debate at the August 25 ORC meeting. Degraded and sluggish, particularly in its lower reaches, the river clearly needs more of its own water to survive. Help was surely on its way as the science, the law, and Kai Tahu matauranga agreed on this point. The debate should have simply focused on how much of the 75% of the river's water currently abstracted, we needed to given back.


On the agenda were staff recommendations based on more than $4m dollars and 26,500 hours of work, cultural studies from Kai Tahu, and the culmination of years of community debate and consultation. The agenda also holds a sorry timeline of the recent history of ORC attempts to intervene in the river's health.


On that locked down day, on zoom from our home offices, ORC councillors were to note a river flow regime that would restore the health of the river as required under the National Policy Statement Freshwater Management 2020 and its Te Mana O Te Wai requirements which include putting the health of the river above all other considerations. Yes, this would be a huge, likely threatening and frightening step for those whose livelihood depends on the taking water from the river, particularly those who have heavily invested in irrigation systems that need certainty of water take, and the service communities that support the agri and hort industries. But there would be a stepped approach and two years to begin to figure it out.


A week or more before the meeting, an alternative Notice of Motion, with a weird background piece, was tabled by Chair Andrew Noone and Councillor Hilary Calvert. This alternative motion proposed further delays and cast doubt on the robustness of the science. 

It also included a lot of distracting stuff about Department of Conservation's concern that the galaxiids (native fish) would be in trouble if trout were able to get higher into the river tributaries - maybe true - but actually what I think DOC was asking for was time to install some fish barriers, not to continue to starve the river. Good old context twisting. But there was plenty more of that to come.


The proposed new motion was intolerable for councillors committed to both restoring the river and to the principles of Te Mana o te Wai. These same councillors also understand that there is always doubt in science but had accepted the staff position that the science to date was defensible. Anyway, of all the bits of science collected, there were really only two areas of any contention at all. Crs Robertson, Scott, Hobbs and Forbes, protested with a letter to David Parker, Minister for the Environment, alerting him to areas of concern around delays, and some serious issues of integrity.

Generation Zero even made a video for the ORC meeting.

Polarisation of the politicians was fully in place before the meeting started with 6 councillors in the ‘doubt, stall, confuse and delay’ corner (Chair Noone, Crs Calvert, Hope, Laws, Malcolm and Wilson) and the other 5, (Crs Deaker, Forbes, Hobbs, Robertson and Scott) in the ‘lets get on with it' space.

The meeting quickly descended into technical and political chaos and eventually stuttered to a sorry close with no decision made that would help the river. The final confused motion was for further delay to apparently 'get exact science' - an oxymoron if I've ever seen one.
The Manuherekia limps on. You can watch that entire, painful 4 and a half hours here.
Or you can watch my 13 minute potted summary which highlights shenanigans, technical and process troubles, delays, flabbergasted staff, and other bizarre twists and turns, of course from my perspective.

ORC Councillor Alexa Forbes' edited highlights from a meeting that the ORC would probably prefer to forget.


What’s next? Who knows? At the moment the delay, cast doubt, kick can down road tactics prevail. There’s a petition now to save the river, first step replace us – the council, with commissioners. You can sign it here.


A more detailed and fascinating history of the Manuherekia is well documented in this Spinoff article by Jillian Sullivan.


Standby, no doubt round whothef**kcankeepcount is not far away.



Support Crux Support Crux