The history of WCOs – the “national parks” of our rivers

Water Conservation Orders have been in the news lately, with the passing in March of the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Bill, which environmental and recreational groups claim fundamentally undermines Water Conservation Orders (WCO) in Canterbury, by giving the newly appointed ECan Commission the decision-making power on WCO applications, placing a greater emphasis on “sustainable management” rather than protection, and removing the right to appeal the decision (except on points of law).

So, what is the history and origins of the WCO, the so-called “national park” of rivers? As Nicola Wheen relates in “A history of New Zealand environmental law”, its origins can be traced back to 1967, when water management in New Zealand was comprehensively revised. The Water and Soil Conservation Act put in place a single licensing system to control water use for industry, town supply, fisheries, wildlife habitats, and recreation. The Act took a catchment-wide approach, thereby advancing regional governance of natural resources. Under the Act, any proposed use of water had to prove beneficial when weighed against anticipated costs.

However, some fundamental flaws in this balancing approach were revealed when in 1978, a hydro electric scheme proposed for Rangitaiki River, and its upper tributary, the Wheao River (in Hawke’s Bay) was approved. This was despite the likely loss of an outstanding trout fishery and the destruction of the habitat of the endangered blue duck (whio) and brown teal. Critics argued that the law had a clear bias towards resource development as opposed to conservation, and argued that some way of conserving rivers and lakes of national significance was needed.

In 1981, environmentalists saw the fruits of their advocacy efforts, when WCOs were introduced as part of the “Wild and Scenic Rivers” amendment to the Water and Soil Conservation Act. Their purpose was to preserve the natural, wild, scenic, recreational, wildlife, or scientific features of water bodies. When the Resource Management Act was passed in 1991, WCOs were transferred into this law.

In 1984, the Motu River, which flows through the Raukumara Forest Park in the Bay of Plenty, became the first river to be protected by a WCO. Since then, WCOs have been issued for 12 other rivers and two lakes (Lake Wairarapa and Lake Ellesmere). The new legislation creates some uncertainty for the Hurunui River WCO application, which had completed its hearing before a special tribunal and was at appeal stage before the Environment Court, but will now be reconsidered by the ECan commission against the new statutory test set out in the Canterbury legislation.

Photo top: Manganui o te Ao River, protected by a WCO in 1989 (photo: David Bradley); Above right: the endangered blue duck (whio), has a preference for clean, fast flowing streams in the forested upper catchments of New Zealand rivers. Because of these very particular habitat requirements, blue duck are a walking “litmus test” for river system health; they require bouldery rivers and streams within forested catchments which have high water quality, low sediment loadings, stable banks and abundant and diverse invertebrate communities. Click here for more information.

Sources: A history of New Zealand environmental law, by Nicola Wheen, in Environmental Histories of New Zealand (2004), Ministry for the Environment, Environmental Defence Society.

See also: Resource management law in New Zealand – a potted history, A short history of regional government in NZ.

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