The depths of illegal Canterbury water taking exposed

The depths of illegal Canterbury water taking exposed

A clearer picture is emerging of the extent of water theft in drought-stricken Canterbury.

Forest & Bird calculates 48 of the most serious offenders took 2.3 billion litres more than their resource consents allowed in the 2013/14 season and not one was prosecuted.

This equates to five years' worth of Christchurch residents drinking water, Forest & Bird says.

But the actual amount of water stolen will be much higher, with data not available for more than 300 other offenders classified as serious.

There are around 380 irrigators/farmers who are in serious non-compliance, the conservation group's advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell says.

"A lot of those we have no numbers for because their meters weren't working, were turned off or whatever, so this is an absolute minimum," he says.

Earlier this week, Environment Canterbury's (ECan) chief executive Bill Bayfield says he understood the shock and concern at the number flouting the rules, but asked for time to work through the problem with the farming community, as the authority has been doing for the last three to four years.

"I think we'll move to what I would describe as full compliance and a full ability to monitor and enforce over the next two seasons," he says.

"There will still be the challenge of enforcement, but I think that over the next two years we're going to crack that."

But Mr Hackwell says they won't get compliance if they're not actually following up.

"ECan's enforcement people should be going along, saying 'oi, what's going on, fix that meter'."

"The fact that in some of these situations, it's only a year afterwards that they're discovering the meter hasn't been working is completely and utterly inadequate."

Fish & Game had to rescue fish from low-flowing rivers in autumn, something that normally occurs over the summer dry periods. The Canterbury water table has dropped, with some farm wells at their lowest point ever.

Mr Hackwell says the non-compliance information shows ECan was aware some of the illegal takes were resulting in dry creeks or streams.

"So the consequences were real, but the worst that happened to any of these offenders is that they got a slap over the wrist with a wet abatement notice."