A Chinese-owned company has applied to draw up to 580 million litres of water a year from the pristine Otakiri Springs, near Whakatane, to bottle and ship overseas.
At a time when the commercialisation of freshwater is a sensitive election issue, the bid by the Nongfu Spring subsidiary is set to open the political floodgates.
Labour leader Jacinda Ardern is promising to crack down on royalty-free use of New Zealand’s limited water resources. And National’s Minister Nick Smith says his party has asked a technical group to look into charging for bottling water, but the report won’t be finished until after next month’s election.
Creswell NZ Limited has applied to Bay of Plenty Regional Council to grant a non-notified consent to increase its ability to draw and sell pure NZ water by a massive 27,400 per cent.
The total annual take would be equivalent to 250 Olympic swimming pools; it would be enough to give a 330ml bottle of water to every man, woman and child in New Zealand, every day of the year.
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Creswell admits to the public sensitivity of the issue. The company’s own report writers, Beca Consulting, acknowledge the negative public opinion around the fact that little to no royalties are paid for selling New Zealand water.
“One matter not discussed in detail in that analysis is the recent negative publicity regarding various proposals around New Zealand to bottle and export water and concerns raised about the lack of a royalty payment regime for such proposals,” says the report, obtained by Stuff.
“As the Council will appreciate, that is because those matters are not relevant to the consideration of the application under the Resource Management Act and must not be taken into account in the Council’s notification decision.”
Currently the company takes two million litres of water for bottling, but this could increase to 580 million litres a year.
By 2021, the plant would be drawing 208,000 litres per hour, every hour of every day – nearly 5 million litres a day – to fill 72,000 bottles, every hour of every day, for Chinese company Nongfu Spring.
Labour’s water spokesman David Parker said the fact Beca mentioned the negative public reaction in the application should be a red flag. “This is a prime example of why we need fair royalty from water use back to New Zealand,” he said. “How can people think this bottling operation is right?”
Premium water for bottling and export could carry a 1 or 2 cent per litre royalty which would be given back to the regional authorities, Parker said. Water drawn for other uses such as irrigation would be charged less. “We predict it will be roughly a 1000th of that figure,” Parker said. “We will be working to make sure the price is fair.”
Nongfu Spring Ltd has a sale purchase agreement with Otakiri Springs Ltd and Robertson Farms (the land-owners), which includes the transfer of the existing land use consent, with the ownership of their land.
The premium quality of New Zealand water is key to Creswell NZ’s application to the Bay of Plenty Regional Council. “Nongfu Spring wishes to retain the Otakiri Brand and to market it as a premium New Zealand artesian bottled water brand.”
The impact on the environment would be minimal, the application says, and the expansion of the existing bottling plant will generate 50 new jobs for Otakiri. That would be worth $8.59 million to the local economy every year once the plant is fully operational, the application says.
Approached outside his home in the Auckland suburb of Glendowie, Creswell NZ director Michael Gleissner initially refused to comment. But he later issued a statement, through a public relations consultant.
He defended the application, saying the aquifer had plenty of water and ability to recharge, and many jobs would be filled by local residents.
Gleissner agreed water bottling had been a contentious issue in the election campaign.
“Water pricing, whether it’s a broad-based or targeted levy is an extraordinarily complex issue,” he said. “This is for the Government to decide, and we will respect whatever decision it makes.”
Gleissner said the application to regional council was put forward as a non-notified consent because it is within the limits of the existing water allocation.
“The Resource Management Act contains the relevant legal tests for whether or not an application is notified to the public generally or to affected persons, and those tests focus on the extent of adverse effects on the environment or on those persons,” he said.
“Planners and other experts have analysed the proposal in detail and concluded that the tests are not met and notification is not required.”
Bay of Plenty Regional Council chairman Doug Leeder said water resource consents were typically handled at an executive level and are usually non-notified.
But public concern about water bottling for export might become a consideration in this case.
“This issue is about royalties or charges for volumetric use of water. This issue has become a social focal point,” he said. “The wider concern and changing mood is a factor and we need to be mindful of that changing mood and peoples’ interests.”
– Sunday Star Times