Simons Pass – What’s the Story?

Simons Pass Station’s consents have created a lot of interest among environmental groups and individuals concerned about the impact on the Mackenzie Basin landscape, water quality and its indigenous flora and fauna. 

The following information aims to clarify the situation regarding the station’s consents held by Environment Canterbury, the Mackenzie District Council and the Commissioner of Crown Lands, as well as the involvement of other agencies in the area.

During the last six years, while the Simons Pass consents were going through Environment Court appeal process and were eventually granted (subject to numerous conditions), there has been a very noticeable trend towards stricter environmental controls and the alignment of the local authorities and Government agencies involved in new consent applications in the Mackenzie.

Today, key matters such as land use, the landscape, water quality and quantity, vegetation clearance and biodiversity are being carefully managed and consents are being closely monitored collaboratively by the agencies involved.

Simons Pass Station consents

Simons Pass Station is a high country farm at the southern end of Lake Pukaki. It is made up of both freehold land and the Simons Pass Crown pastoral lease.

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 feed, such as lucerne. Milking of some of the cows started after the winter break in August 2018.

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 applied for these consents from the relevant agency as early as 2005.

Today, the 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
  • 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.

However, Simons Pass Station cannot begin irrigation, or the disposal of its effluent via spray irrigation until it meets its Environment Canterbury consent conditions.  Among these is the completion and sign-off of a “baseline survey” of indigenous species on a large dryland reserve that is being set aside within the station, and which will not be farmed.

Environment Canterbury’s consents – how did they happen?
At Simons Pass, the station’s numerous consents took some time to come about.  The majority of the Environment Canterbury consents were granted in 2012, but were appealed to the Environment Court by Forest and Bird, the Mackenzie Guardians, Genesis Energy and Meridian Energy and Simons Pass Station itself.  Following amendments to the application and, with the imposition of additional conditions onto the consents, the Environment Court appeals were settled in September 2016 by all these parties, including those who originally opposed the consent.
These conditions included the requirement to set aside a large Dryland Recovery Area (almost 4000 hectares) for conservation.  Some of this area (1350 hectares) is located on the pastoral lease, 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 and otherwise leave the area untouched.  The agencies that administer these consents are monitoring conditions carefully and often, as well as working with the landowner to ensure environmental requirements are met.
What is different now?
Environmental rules were a little different 10 to 12 years ago when the original consents were applied for from Environment Canterbury, Mackenzie District Council and the Commissioner of Crown Lands/LINZ.  Since then, the Mackenzie District Council and Environment Canterbury have both introduced numerous restrictions on farming practices in order to protect water quality, landscapes and biodiversity, and monitor land use.   
Additionally, LINZ has initiated a high country advisory board with a watching brief on the Mackenzie Basin. A proposal today on the scale of Simons Pass would need to demonstrate compliance with much tighter rules around land use, water quality and water use, and loss of biodiversity.
Mackenzie District Council has introduced Plan Changes (to its District Plan) that impose much stricter rules on farming.  The first, Plan Change 13 (PC13), came into effect in November 2015, requiring resource consents for pastoral intensification and built development on farms.  As such, resource consent for large-scale irrigated developments such as those proposed at Simons Pass are now difficult to obtain under PC13.
More recently, the District Council has put in place stricter rules around vegetation clearance and the need for farmland biodiversity protection with Plan Change 18.

Canterbury’s Land & Water Regional Plan

Environment Canterbury’s Land & Water Regional Plan (LWRP) brought in much tighter rules in 2012 around nutrient management on farms, limiting the volume of nitrogen that may be lost to ground and surface water from farming activities.  Plan Change 5 to the LWRP (some of it already operative and the remainder to be operative soon) requires farms like Simons Pass to produce auditable farm environment plans (FEPs) to Environment Canterbury.  They need to operate at Good Management Practice, including irrigation methods and nutrient levels in the soil, and their FEPs must identify significant indigenous biodiversity on their properties.

High country advisory board

In August 2018, Land Information New Zealand, which supports the Commissioner of Crown Lands with the management of farmland on Crown-owned pastoral leases, announced ten, two-year appointments to a new South Island high country advisory board.  When calling for nominations in May, LINZ said it wanted greater input into decision-making to get the best use of Crown land in the high country, “particularly in areas such as the iconic Mackenzie Basin”.  The advisory board’s first meeting will be in October 2018.
The recently initiated close collaboration between all five agencies with statutory responsibilities in the Mackenzie Basin will mean a much stronger, consistent line on managing future land-use change in the Mackenzie and a joined-up approach to consenting and planning rules.  These five agencies are Environment Canterbury, the Mackenzie District Council, Waitaki District Council, the Department of Conservation and Land Information New Zealand.  They are working closely together now to bring clarity around consenting requirements and to ensure the agencies remain aligned and are in close liaison whenever consent applications are made.
The chief executives of all five agencies agree that changes in the Mackenzie Basin in natural character, landscape, biodiversity, biosecurity and water quality are all issues that need to be managed, along with the development of businesses within the rules. The challenge for the agencies is to find a balance.
What do the consents for Simons Pass Station allow?
Environment Canterbury’s consents at Simons Pass cover taking water for irrigation, water quality; land use and stock numbers; and discharge of treated dairy effluent on its land. These are subject to numerous conditions, including a baseline ecology survey, followed by enhancing biodiversity in a new Dryland Recovery Area; maintaining water quality in nearby surface waterways and in Lake Benmore; landscape management north of the highway; staged nutrient discharge reductions if water quality outcomes aren’t achieved; and compliance with a Farm Environmental Management Plan.

Simons Pass has an Environment Canterbury permit to take water from the Pukaki Canal, and discharge excess unused irrigation water into the Pukaki River. The station also has an Environment Canterbury consent to take water from the Tekapo Stilling Basin from the Tekapo hydro canal to irrigate its land but there are numerous conditions and limits on these consents. These include the restriction that the station can only take and use water from one of these sources – not both.

The Pukaki Irrigation Company (PIC), which also belongs to the owner of Simons Pass Station, has consents from the Mackenzie District Council and from Environment Canterbury for the earthworks, construction and use of a 8km pipeline to deliver water to its land (along with two neighbouring stations, Simons Hill and Maryburn). Recently, PIC has amended one of its Tekapo Stilling Basin water-take consents to provide for a temporary fish screen and water meter and the flush-testing of the 8km pipe.

Mackenzie District Council’s consents at Simons Pass cover activities such as the erection of centre pivot irrigators, pastoral intensification, agricultural conversion, vegetation clearance, fencing, farm buildings, dwellings and tracks. The first consents were applied for as early as 2005. Current consents allow for the establishment of one dairy shed and yard, and effluent ponds. Consent applications for three further nodes, including three dairy sheds, effluent ponds and a number of houses, were recently withdrawn by the landowner.

Commissioner of Crown Lands: Discretionary consents were first granted in 2006. They cover the numbers of stock that can be carried on the land, scrub clearance, tree felling, sowing seed, topdressing, cultivation, tracking and tree planting.

Discretionary action consents allow for the establishment of a farmyard, on the pastoral lease land, including a dairy shed, effluent ponds, farm sheds and other farm infrastructure. The consents also allow for the development of the pastoral lease to grow pasture and feed crops, and the establishment of an irrigation system. The consents are monitored currently by LINZ.

What other actions have affected Mackenzie Basin land-use in the last few years?
In 2013, 22 interested parties (such as farmers, irrigators, environmental groups and tourism operators), signed the Mackenzie Agreement after a two-year process to agree on the best way forward to protect the landscape. However, no legislation has been passed to give it teeth.  The Agreement called for management, where farmers and environmental groups would agree on areas for farming (it allowed for an additional 25,000 hectares of irrigated farmland) and some 100,000 hectares of tussock landscape where endemic flora and fauna would be protected in a dryland park. It also proposed to pay landowners to conserve rather than farm sensitive tracts of land. The Agreement also led to the eventual establishment of the Mackenzie Country Trust in 2016, to carry out the Agreement’s recommendations.
Recent decisions: In March 2018, Mackenzie District Council-appointed hearing commissioners refused Maryburn Station retrospective consent to clear indigenous vegetation and use two of its pivot irrigators to irrigate 169 hectares of land for stock purposes.  The Commissioners’ decision said the adverse landscape and visual effects of the irrigated farm development would be more than minor and the effect on the outstanding natural landscape values would be irreversible under the strengthened Plan Change 13 rules.
What are the new rules that mean farming in the Mackenzie will be tightly regulated?
The Mackenzie District Council commenced its District Plan Review in 2014 and Stage One (which includes Plan Change 18 and Plan Change 19 – Activities on the Surface of Water) has been notified.  Plan Change 13, which deals with much of the development in Mackenzie District Council’s part of the Mackenzie Basin, is largely completed. These plan changes mean the Council’s rule framework is now strong.
The Mackenzie District Council’s “Plan Change 13” (PC13) significantly strengthens the planning rules in terms of development/built development in the Council’s territory in the Mackenzie Basin (which includes Simons Pass).  The Council notified the Plan Change more than ten years ago to address concerns about the introduction of irrigation in the Basin.  Lengthy court processes mean the rules took until 2015 to come into force. Resource consent is now required under PC13 for most buildings, fencing, pastoral intensification and agricultural conversion.  As such, resource consent for large-scale irrigated developments such as those proposed at Simons Pass are now difficult to obtain under PC13.
Environment Canterbury’s “Plan Change 5” (PC5) to the Canterbury Land & Water Regional Plan will soon become operative.  Some of the provisions relating to the Upper Waitaki are operative already.  PC5 sets clear limits on the amount of nitrogen that may be lost to groundwater and surface water from farming activities.  It also requires farmers who need a consent to farm to have auditable farm environment plans.
The Waitaki Catchment Water Allocation Regional Plan manages water allocation throughout the catchment including efficiency of water use.  It does not have provisions relating to water quality.
The Upper Waitaki Zone Committee’s Zone Implementation Programme contains a variety of on-the-ground actions in terms of water quality and biodiversity – as well as having clear expected outcomes, such as no further reduction in water quality.
The Waitaki District Council is currently undergoing a District Plan Review, which will improve the existing framework for managing development in the Mackenzie Basin and Upper Waitaki.  It will be unlikely a development of the Simons Pass scale could be consented in Waitaki’s part of the Mackenzie Basin.
What has changed in 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.  The area was named after sheep rustler James Mackenzie, who arrived in the 19th century over Burke’s Pass and grazed sheep on the by-then dry tussock landscape.
Since then, European settlement introduced a range of pests: gorse and broom, wilding conifers, lupins, rabbits and heiracium (hawkweed) – all of them harmful to the local ecology, and 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.
For many years, farmers have carried out aerial topdressing of fertiliser and sowing seed crops for pasture.  More recently in the last 20 or so years, irrigation has been introduced and the greening of parts of the traditionally brown Mackenzie Basin has occurred along with more intensive stocking – especially with dairy cows.
There are now more than 80 threatened or at-risk species, along with several rare species of fish, invertebrates and birds, and the critically endangered black stilt and the nationally vulnerable banded dotterel.  The black stilt inhabits and breeds in braided rivers and wetland areas and is not usually seen in the Simons Pass area.
Simons Pass comprises 9700 hectares of land between the Pukaki and Tekapo Rivers and Lake Pukaki.  There is also a Simons Hill Station (sheep and beef) nearby.
The Pukaki Irrigation Company (PIC) holds the majority of consents related to the Tekapo and Pukaki pipeline developments.  PIC has run a 10 km pipeline from the Tekapo Stilling Basin to supply water to three neighbouring farms – Simons Pass, Simons Hill and Maryburn Stations.  Each of the stations hold their own water take and use consents.  The owner of Simons Pass Station also owns PIC