First wetland pursuit by the West Coast Regional Council

Much of the land around Haast in South Westland is managed by the Department of Conservation.  (File photo)

JOHN BISSET/STUFF

Much of the land around Haast in South Westland is managed by the Department of Conservation. (File photo)

Cleaning a drain in a wetland cost a Haast farmer $20,000 – and counting.

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

Colin Helem, head of the council’s consents and compliance team, said the drain was dug several years ago on a paper road bordering Cowan’s farm and conservation lands.

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

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“The wetland is listed in Schedule 2 of the Regional Land and Water Plan, and the works were illegal because they were within 25m of the wetland,” Helem said.

Cowan was charged in 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) justice route.

By mutual agreement, he donated $20,000 to a community group in Haast to ride to a local bike park.

He was also to hire a consultant to design a remedial action plan and obtain resource consent for work to mitigate the effects of his unauthorized excavations. Work is ongoing and involves seasonal planting.

Kathleen Gallagher/Supplied

Rohe Kōreporepo – The swamp, the sacred place.

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

“If an offender is eligible, the council can use its prosecutorial discretion to solve environmental crimes, without the person being convicted.”

Cowan also had to pay the board’s investigation costs, court costs and legal fees, which Helem said would have been substantial.

The lawsuit predates the new National Environmental Standards for Freshwater, which introduce even stricter rules on earthworks in or near a natural wetland.

Unauthorized rock wall found

October was an unusually quiet month for environmental errors, according to the West Coast Regional Council’s latest compliance and enforcement report.

The council has only received four complaints – and found only one, so far, to be substantiated.

Staff traveled to Fox River after a complaint about rock protection work in the coastal marine area.

They discovered that someone had requested resource consent to build a rock face, then built it without waiting for consent.

Investigations are continuing into this complaint and another, in which a Hokitika company allegedly burned off-site solid waste in a residential area.

A complaint has been dismissed over the use of demolition concrete to fill land in the Snodgrass Rd area after the Westport flood; compliance personnel inspected the site and found that the activity was in compliance with the rules.

A complaint about dead animals in a Barrytown creek also died in the water: staff could not find the offending animal.

Further investigation revealed that the complainant spotted him three weeks before reporting him to council.

Elna M. Lemons