Forest & Bird asks whether public money is being spent on illegal dam proposal

Forest & Bird is seeking an assurance that no public money will be spent considering illegal options to flood specially protected conservation land.

The irrigation lobby group Manuherikia WaterCo is investigating proposals to raise the height of Falls Dam in Otago.

“It would be wrong for the Manuherikia WaterCo to spend any of the $800,000 taxpayer subsidy from the Crown Irrigation Investment fund on a new dam scenario that would involve flooding of the Oteake Conservation Park,” says Forest & Bird Freshwater Advocate Annabeth Cohen.

“The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Ruataniwha Dam in Hawkes Bay could not flood specially protected conservation land in the Ruahine Forest Park. This ruling would also apply to proposals to flood parts of the Oteake Conservation Park behind Falls Dam.”

“Forest & Bird want to be sure that the options being considered using public money are all legal.”

Any increase in the height of Falls Dam and in the amount of irrigation in the catchment is likely to have a significant environmental impact.

“Even a so-called ‘low’ dam option is likely to flood breeding habitat of threatened black-billed gulls and possibly the breeding area of nationally endangered black-fronted tern.”

Both birds are on the Government’s top 100 list of threatened species that need special attention for protection and recovery.

There are also several endangered indigenous plant species that could be impacted by increasing the height of the dam, such as Waitaki broom, also on the Government’s top 100 threatened species list.

Manuherikia Catchment Water Strategy Group chairperson Allan Kane, has also suggested that the Otago Regional Council (ORC) should bend to pressure from farmers in the Manuherikia when setting minimum flows in the river.

“The law requires that minimum flows are set to maintain the ecological health of the river, they are not meant to represent whatever might be left over after farmers have taken what they want.”

“We hope that ORC will honour its mandate, which is to maintain the water quality and ecological health of all freshwater bodies in Otago in an unbiased way,” says Ms Cohen.

Increased irrigation almost always leads to agricultural intensification which leads to increased pollution of fresh water.

"This is another reason to make sure that the minimum flows are set at the right levels to maintain and improve the ecological health of the Manuherikia River in the face of increased farming pressure," said Ms Cohen.