Stricter environmental controls in the Mackenzie mean Simons Pass consents unlikely today

Consents from Environment Canterbury and the Mackenzie District Council are now in place for Simons Pass Station to begin irrigating a portion of its land on either side of State Highway 8 in the Mackenzie Basin.

The consents relate to the Mary Range part of the station, to the west of SH8 (which was previously irrigated by a border dyke system); and to a small portion of two pivots further south, to the east of SH8. These two pivots are close to the Simons Pass dairy sheds, where the farm’s 840 cows are being milked. Commencing irrigation on the remainder of the station has yet to be consented by the Mackenzie District Council.

Tighter rules beginning to bite

Nadeine Dommisse, who chairs the Mackenzie Basin Agency Alignment Programme – the group of five government agencies charged with regulating land use and water quality in the Mackenzie – said that this type of intensive farming land use would not get consent in this location today because the rules have changed.

“The rules in the Mackenzie Basin are now much stricter, particularly since 2015, and are beginning to bite. In fact, two new consent applications for more intensive farming have been declined since 2016 due to concerns over landscape values and water quality,” Ms Dommisse said.

The rule changes have been introduced by Environment Canterbury and the Mackenzie District Council. The Waitaki District Council, which covers the southern area of the Mackenzie, is also reviewing its rules through its current District Plan Review.

Ms Dommisse said that the alignment of the five Government agencies with statutory authority in the Mackenzie (the regional council, the two district councils, the Department of Conservation and LINZ) had brought further environmental oversight through shared information over consent applications and consent compliance, shared mapping, shared pest control (including rabbits and wilding conifers), and shared biodiversity programmes that involved planting along rivers and in wetlands, to encourage indigenous wildlife.

“The agencies have followed the law and the rules all along. That is what statutory authorities have to do,” she said. “But until recently we were not always working together in the joined-up way that is occurring today.

Consents conditions

“When Simons Pass was granted consents by the Environment Court in 2016 (after agreement was reached with all the appellants including Mackenzie Guardians, and Forest and Bird), the Court imposed 99 conditions on those consents – probably the most onerous sets of conditions for a farm of this type anywhere in New Zealand,” she said.

“One of these conditions is that the station is required to spend at least $100,000 a year, as part of its consent conditions, towards restoring indigenous species in a designated Dryland Recovery Area, which is to be set aside and left largely untouched.

“Simons Pass has met all of our conditions bar one, which relates to finalisation of a baseline survey to protect the Dryland Recovery Area. But we’re confident that the mitigating actions the station has taken mean there is no risk of irrigation reaching that area.”

Ms Dommisse said she didn’t believe there were grounds to take a successful enforcement action and that there was only a very low risk to the environment from the limited amount of irrigation commencing at this stage, given the conditions being actively monitored.

“We’re satisfied they’ve done enough for now, but we will be focusing on them completing the baseline survey by the end of the summer,” she said.
Ms Dommisse said she had been advised that irrigation might start any day on other areas of the property.

“We are watching compliance very closely. Additionally, the station is precision farming and measuring and monitoring to a high level itself.”
The Mackenzie District Council is also involved in monitoring the station’s compliance with its restriction on the use of its two eastern pivots, sharing resources with Environment Canterbury through the five-agency alliance.

Simons Pass consents

When a farm wishes to introduce a new activity, such as dairy farming, it has to apply for a range of consents to, for example, take or use water, discharge effluent, build infrastructure such as dairy sheds or put in a water pipeline.

Simons Pass Station was granted consent in 2016 (with 99 conditions attached) by the Environment Court to take and use water from a Lake Tekapo hydro canal to irrigate almost 4500 hectares south of Lake Pukaki, on both sides of State Highway 8. The consents also include land use to farm up to 15,000 dairy cows.

These consents came about after initial consents, granted in 2012 by a panel of independent commissioners, were appealed to the Environment Court by Forest and Bird, the Mackenzie Guardians, Genesis Energy and Meridian Energy and Simons Pass Station itself. The appeals were settled in September 2016 by all these parties, including those who originally opposed the consent.

Among the numerous conditions attached to the consents was the requirement to set aside a 2500-hectare Dryland Recovery Area for conservation. Some of this area (1350 hectares) is located on Crown pastoral lease land, while the remainder is on the existing freehold farmland. The 2016 mediated consents also require the station to spend at least $100,000 a year to restore indigenous species in the Dryland Recovery Area.

Simons Pass Station also has consents from the Mackenzie District Council for farm infrastructure (such as dairy sheds, houses and other infrastructure), and for infrastructure associated with a 8km pipeline to deliver the irrigation water; and from the Commissioner of Crown Lands (via Land Information New Zealand) for the numbers of stock that can be carried on the land, as well as for scrub clearance, tree felling, sowing seed, topdressing, cultivation, tracking, tree planting and soil disturbance.

At present, the 9700-hectare station is still primarily a beef and sheep farm, with approximately 1300 beef cattle and calves, 7000 sheep, and 840 dairy cows. The farm also grows pastures of animal feed.

Find out more

For further information about the consenting rules that apply to farming and development in the Mackenzie, please go to: 

Additional information about the Mackenzie and Simons Pass consents

Why were the Simons Pass consents granted to allow extensive irrigation and intensive dairying in the middle of the Mackenzie Basin?
The Mackenzie District Council and Environment Canterbury both have obligations under the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) and their own rules (the Mackenzie District Council’s District Plan and the Waitaki Catchment Water Allocation Regional Plan).
Under the RMA, Simons Pass, like any other farm or station wanting to take water for irrigation, had to apply for resource consents from Environment Canterbury. The consent applications, around 2006, were then publicly notified by Environment Canterbury because it considered that the effects on water quality and landscape values from these applications, in conjunction with other similar activities, would be more than minor. This was the first time the Regional Council had notified consents for these reasons.
The decision in 2012 by an Environment Canterbury independent hearing panel to grant most of the Simons Pass consents was appealed to the Environment Court by Forest and Bird, the Mackenzie Guardians, Genesis Energy and Meridian Energy and Simons Pass Station itself. Following the agreement on over 90 consent conditions by all these organisations, including those who originally opposed the consent, the Environment Court appeals were settled in September 2016.
Around the same time, the Mackenzie District Council granted Simons Pass Station consents under the RMA for farm infrastructure, including calf sheds, workers’ accommodation and effluent ponds. These consents were processed before the rules under the Mackenzie District Council’s Plan Change 13 came into place and so the consents were not subject to the much stricter rules now in place.
Today, Simons Pass Station has consents from the following:
  • Mackenzie District Council for farm infrastructure (such as dairy sheds, houses and other infrastructure);
  • Environment Canterbury for land use to farm up to 15,000 dairy cows;
  • Environment Canterbury to take and use water from the Tekapo or Pukaki hydro canals for irrigation, and to dispose of effluent via spray irrigation;
  • Mackenzie District Council for infrastructure associated with a 8km pipeline to deliver the irrigation water and for the installation of 39 irrigation pivots across the farm; and
  • The Commissioner of Crown Lands (via Land Information New Zealand – LINZ) for the numbers of stock that can be carried on the land, scrub clearance, tree felling, sowing seed, topdressing, cultivation, tracking, tree planting and soil disturbance.
Changes to the Mackenzie Basin landscape
For many centuries the land that now forms the Mackenzie Basin was mostly covered in indigenous forest. However, the arrival of Māori and Pakeha led to the gradual burn-off of the vegetation.
Since then, European settlement introduced a range of pests: gorse and broom, wilding conifers, lupins, Cotoneaster and Hieracium (hawkweed), rabbits and hares, Canada goose, feral cats, rats and stoats – all of them harmful to the local ecology, and some an impediment to grazing for sheep. Further intrusion into the Mackenzie came from large hydro-electricity developments at Pukaki and Tekapo (and further south in Waitaki and Benmore), and from a steadily growing influx of tourists, causing pressure on popular scenic areas around Pukaki and Tekapo. There has also been an increasing demand for subdivision and development, domesticating the natural environment.
The hydro dam enabled increased irrigation. Farmers initially irrigated their land using local rivers and streams, but after the hydro dam and canal system in the 1960s, farmers were able to introduce more irrigation and more intensive farming. In 2002, consent granted to Benmore Irrigation allowed the first large-scale irrigation schemes and the introduction of dairying.