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Environment Canterbury spotlight: river management and consenting

An Environment Canterbury initiative provides a new option for short-term gravel extraction from the region’s rivers. HUGH DE LACY explains.

Using gravel extraction as a tool to help Environment Canterbury (Ecan) better control its braided rivers is the motivation behind a new permitting system being introduced by the regional council.

Ecan is essentially granting itself a river gravel extraction resource consent and offering contractors 12-month permits under it as an alternative to the standard practice of obtaining resource consents under the Resource Management Act.

The aim is to allow the council to target gravel extraction at the parts of the rivers that need it to minimise the risk of flooding.

Most existing resource consents for gravel extraction are for five, occasionally 10 years’ duration, but Ecan has found that there’s about twice as much resource consented in any given year than is extracted.

That makes gravel extraction a highly uncertain, even random, tool for river flow management.

“Only about half of what is consented is actually taken out under the resource consent process,” Ecan river engineer Shaun McCracken told Q&M.

“From the management of the rivers and a resource point of view, that makes our job quite hard because once we’ve consented some gravel to one party we can’t allocate that same piece of gravel to anyone else,” McCracken says.

“At the moment if you’re applying for a five or 10-year consent, you’re applying for a volume of gravel that you don’t necessarily know you’re going to need – you don’t know what contracts you’re going to have to fill in 12 months.

“So most businesses’ practice would be to have a good guess about how much you’re going to need, and then probably add a bit more for a buffer.”

What Ecan is introducing to the extraction authorisation process is a suite of rules covering everything from the way gravel is extracted to the volume allowed or required to be extracted within 12 months.

The existing resource consent process will remain in place, and McCracken sees it as continuing to be the way the larger operators – the likes of Fulton Hogan, Road Metals and Christchurch Ready-Mix – gain access to resource.

There is a precedent for territorial authorities to administer gravel extraction other than by resource consents.

The Tasman District Council, for example, actually performs the gravel extraction itself, with the contractors uploading their requirements from stockpiles, while neighbouring Nelson City already operates a system similar to the one Ecan is introducing.

The short-term option has been welcomed cautiously by Canterbury contractors whose main concern seems to be that it not signal a move by Ecan to gradually take over the control of the whole gravel resource, be it on land or in the riverbeds.

Isaac Construction chief executive Brian Warren says that the experience in South Canterbury, where Ecan has been trialling short-term authorisations for several years, is that “it seems to work quite well”.

“There’s merit in being able to gain licences for small volumes quickly, but it doesn’t fit with the longer-term larger-volume permits.

“From Isaac Construction’s perspective we’ve got some significant infrastructure relying on long-term gravel out of the [Waimakariri] River, and short-term licences for smaller quantities doesn’t sit well with that.”

Warren accordingly cautions against Ecan moving away completely from the resource consent process.

George Kelcher, Road Metals’ general manager, was part of a group of South Canterbury contractors who negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Ecan to make short-term allocations after the regional council put a temporary stop to extraction from southern riverbeds while it surveyed them.

“We went for short-term consents of three months with a maximum of 30,000 [cubic] metres, and in return their guarantee was you’d get those inside two weeks,” Kelcher tells Q&M.

“That worked relatively well: It gave Ecan some tools [for river management], it gave the industry some certainty, and it gave the community access to the resource.”

Ecan’s short-term extraction option is being set up under its Land and Water Plan, and it’s communicating with the industry by way of the Canterbury Gravel Liaison Committee, as well as the South Canterbury MoU Group.

Kelcher is a member of both.

The Land and Water Plan replaced the short-lived National River Resource Plan, which was aimed at standardising the rules and regulations for river management nationwide, but which turned out to be less user-friendly than it might have been.

The Land and Water Plan is currently under appeal in the courts, so has yet to be passed.

Kelcher says Ecan is also looking at applying a code of practice, presently under discussion and due back for comment shortly, on river extraction. He noted that while such a code might enhance safety on extraction sites, “we are commercial operators and we have to get a commercial benefit out of it”.

“But at the end of the day [Ecan’s short-term permitting option] is absolutely for the benefit of the community because the closer the gravel is to a job, the less cartage there is, and the less the ratepayers have to pay for councils and NZTA,” says Kelcher.

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