25 March 2010

Environment Canterbury and the Creech Report

Claire Browning of the Pundit blog has written intelligently about Environment Canterbury and the Creech Report.

I have been delaying commenting on the Creech Report, but I felt Claire deserved an inside viewpoint on Environment Canterbury. So I have finally come up with an opinion (below), which I posted as a comment on her post on Pundit.

You may be interested in a few thoughts from someone who was once on the "consenting frontline" at Environment Canterbury. Through the 'noughties', I either worked for or contracted to Ecan, as a (consents) compliance monitoring officer or a consents investigating (processing) officer or as an author of the annual environmental enforcement report or as a contracted reporting officer at consent hearings.

Yes, Creech's involvement is not that relevant. Yes, the Creech Report is not above criticism. For example, it says almost nothing about agricultural intensification and water quality. Yes the Greens have gone from criticising Ecan for 'not trying and failing the environment' to defending Ecan for 'trying and failing the environment'. Yes, Ecan's water consenting and water planning are the most important issue. Yes, both have been a shambles. Yes, it is a failure of both governance and senior management, and yes, there are are culpable parties, and an intervention is required to solve a problem and it would be good to hold those culpable parties responsible.

Here's one example of bad management management of groundwater and surface water permits. Prior to 1991, the North Canterbury and South Canterbury Catchment Boards issued water permits that specified weekly or fortnightly take volumes, maximum pumping rates and had a maximum duration of 10 years.

In the early 1990s, the new manager of the Ecan groundwater scientists wished to manage water consenting much as he had done at his previous employer, Nelson Catchment Board. He wanted short duration permits (5 years), clearly stated maximum pumping rates and weekly/fortnightly volume limits, and compulsory measurement via water meters of the volumes taken. At Nelson, after five years, they replaced expiring permits with new permits with annual volume limits based on actual usage. Pretty commonsense sustainable management of water resources you would think.

However, the Consents Manager (who we used to call 'Mr Teflon' as nothing used to stick to him) did the exact opposite.

He bowed to pressure from rural councillors and began issuing non-notified water permits with the maximum duration, 35 years, without water meters, and without the weekly volumes, instead only stating a maximum pumping rate. This was a huge strategic mistake. The 35 year duration was out of step with other regions and has been validly criticised by DOC, Fish and Game, Ngai Tahu, the Water Rights Trust and Judge Smith in the Lynton Dairies case.

Obviously (in hindsight, to me anyway), the then CEO, the Director of Regulation and the Director of Planning Policy, either tolerated or acquiesced in councillor interference in statutory decisions delegated to a 'tier 3' manager, and had failed to plan for the issue. To me, that was clearly a failure of governance and senior management.

Water planning.

As the most water-abundant region in New Zealand, Canterbury should have led planning for water allocation under the RMA, instead of being the laggard. Why doesn't Ecan have an operative regional water plan? Why is the proposed Ecan plan stuck in limbo? I have several reasons.

The proposed-but-not-operative Canterbury Natural Resources Regional Plan ("NRRP") was fundamentally over-scoped from the beginning and the plan writing process suffered from continual scope-creep. The best metaphor is that the NRRP is the INCIS Police Computer System of RMA planning and local government. The NRRP can be seen as a code to completely replace the RMA in Canterbury, rather than to complement the RMA in setting the most important rules for the highest priority matters such as water allocation and agricultural intensification.

I once tried to goad one of the senior Ecan planners (an ex-catchment board planner) with the quip that the NRRP was like the bible, capable of any interpretation. The planner started a serious discussion with me about how one strength of the NRRP was it's comprehensiveness. He just didn't get it.

Here's a real-world example of this. At the 2006 Rakaia-Selwyn groundwater hearing, the applicants' planning witness (of course a former Ecan consents team leader) gave a plausible interpetation of the NRRP 180 degrees different from Ecan's. The said senior Ecan planner further sunk the Ecan case by giving three possible explanations of the water allocation provisions to the hearing panel ("On the one hand, on the second, and on the third hand..."). That typified interactions with the Ecan planners. Any discussions about the NRRP and its meaning were very open-ended and inconclusive.

From a practical consent processing perspective, a regional plan only affects the real world through the granting of resource consents. A plan can only concretely affect the real world in two ways:
* It can permit without consent some low level activities that would otherwise require consents under sections 9-15 RMA (i.e. make 'permitted' taking small volumes of water that would otherwise be 'discretionary' requiring consent).
* It can make some activities 'prohibited' that would otherwise require consents under sections 9-15 RMA (i.e. prohibiting taking water in excess of a minimum flow or allocation block).

From a theoretical plan-writing perspective, a regional plan can also have rules making consented activities 'controlled', 'restricted discretionary','discretionary' and 'non-complying'. A plan can also include detailed objectives, policies, and methods. From a practical consenting background, such distinctions are just mere generic 'matters to have regard to' for the decision makers.

The NRRP writers had transferred to Ecan from catchment boards (or even the short-lived Canterbury United Council) and had little or no practical resource consenting background. Not surprisingly the NRRP includes too many unfocused overly-long objectives, methods, and policies. The more unfocused provisions you have in your plan, the more open-ended inconclusive discursive debates you have about them. And the more uncertain and open to alternative interpretation the plan becomes. And the longer to get it through the submissions stage. And the less relevant the plan is to the consent process.

Again, the Ecan Councillors, the former CEOs, the Director of Regulation and the Director of Planning Policy, all failed to ensure that the NRRP's original scope was clearly prioritised and defined. They all either initiated or tolerated or acquiesced in this miss-scoped open-ended on-going never-ending discursive discussion that was the NRRP planning process. Again, I call that a failure of governance and senior management.

What should Ecan have done? Easy to answer with hindsight. There were explicit minimum flows for river in the conditions of a large number of the old catchment board surface water permits. These minimum flows and a few 'boundaries' between 'permitted' activities and discretionary activities should have immediately been written into a 'quick and dirty' RMA-styled regional plan. Ecan would have 'learnt by doing' RMA planning by incrementally writing and getting prioritised rules operative. After minimum river flows, Ecan should have worked on river allocation blocks and groundwater allocation blocks and water quality effects of agricultural intensification. Instead, they went for a 'kitchen sink' approach where the definition of the 'kitchen sink' was endlessly debated and the needed outcome, clear certain, enforceable rules, remains as far off as ever.

Whats my cure? Well, my diagnosis is that the problem is the plan, the NRRP, not the organisation, Ecan that created it. Any new Canterbury Water Authority will be just as stuck in contentious water consent hearings as Ecan when it inherits the NRRP. The fix for the NRRP is for the Ministry for the Environment to enact a 'quick and dirty' National Environmental Standard for Canterbury water allocation under Sections 43, 43A, 43B and 44 of the RMA. These sections allow the Minister to enact an almost instant operative plan that covers "water quality, level, or flow" (s43). It trumps both a proposed and an operative plan (s 44A), thus making the NRRP a dead letter. The National Environmental Standard for Canterbury water allocation needs to be in place before the October local body elections.

Of course, the Ecan councillors should be replaced by commissioners. There has been a cumulative governance failure and some admirals need to be shot. The present councillors, especially Alex Neill and Jo Kane, can try to explain to the public in October why they should be returned to office instead of new blood.

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