First wetland lawsuit by the West Coast Regional Council

Unclogging a drain in a wetland cost a farmer in Haast $ 20,000 – and it continues.

Haast farmer John Cowan dug a 270m-long drain adjoining the Department of Conservation wetland (file image).
Photo: Provided

In its first lawsuit over damage to a protected wetland, the West Coast Regional Council sued John Cowan earlier this year for digging a 270m-long drain adjoining the Department of Conservation wetland.

Council Consents and Compliance Team Leader Colin Helem said the drain was dug several years ago on a paper road bordering Cowan’s farm and conservation lands.

He went unnoticed until the farmer searched him again in mid-2020, and a complaint followed.

“The wetland is listed in Annex 2 of the regional land and water plan, and the work was illegal because it was within 25m of the wetland,” Helem said.

Cowan was charged by Queenstown District Court with breaking regional rules by carrying out illegal earthworks and diverting water from a natural wetland.

The charges were later dismissed by the court after Cowan completed the council’s alternative (restorative) track of justice.

By deal, he donated $ 20,000 to a community group in Haast to go to a local bike park.

He was also required to hire a consultant to design a corrective action plan and obtain resource consent for work to mitigate the effects of his unauthorized digging. The works are in progress and involve seasonal planting.

The council had successfully used the alternative route of justice in the past, Helem said.

“If an offender is eligible, the board can use its prosecutorial discretion to resolve an environmental offense, without the person getting a conviction.”

Cowan also had to pay the board’s investigative costs, court fees, and legal fees, which Helem said were substantial.

The charge predates new national environmental standards for freshwater, which introduce even stricter rules for earthworks in or near a natural wetland.

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Elna M. Lemons