A raft of new Government mainly rural sector policies and an increased focus on protecting waterways has underpinned a year of substantial growth for the Otago Regional Council.
Its financial year, from 1 July 2021 to 30 June 2022, ORC had total operating funding of $86.8 million, including $20.3 million from general rates, $20.5 million from targeted rates and a $13 million dividend from 100% Council-owned Port Otago.
Interim Chief Executive Dr Pim Borren says “ramping up” was the catch cry during the past year and that is expected to continue through the current financial year.
Dr Borren says staffing numbers have increased from 180 to 320, reflecting increased work in science and regulation the new Government policies require, he says.
“This year will be another big year for the ORC, including major restoration projects of Lake Hayes and Te Hakapupu/Pleasant River wetlands project, and development and delivery of our new, cornerstone Land and Water Regional Plan,” he says.
Dr Borren says there were challenges during the past financial year, especially in the first quarter, where Covid-19 lockdowns restricted fieldwork activities and impacted planned programmes for flood protection, biosecurity, environmental monitoring
and some regulatory work.
“While this caused some pauses in many cases, staff have redoubled efforts to get these programmes back on track, and I’m very proud of their efforts to achieve this,” he says.
Public Transport challenges across Dunedin and Queenstown
Another part-Covid casualty has been strains on Public Transport services in Dunedin and Queenstown, which have straddled both last financial year and the current one.
Dr Borren reiterated he is taking direct responsibility and accountability for improving bus service levels, and is targeting a return to full timetables by early summer.
“To achieve this I’ll be working closely with all our public transport managers and staff. There is no question that the national shortage of bus drivers, which is no fault of our staff, has put significant pressure on ORC staff as well as our service providers Ritchies and Go Bus,” he says.
Dr Borren says he is proud ORC acted swiftly and approved a recent lift of bus drivers pay rates from the $23.65 living wage to the median wage, of $27.76 per hour, back-dated to 1 October.
“This move will start to attract the qualified New Zealand bus drivers who currently reside in Otago back into driving buses and also hits the ImmigrationNZ threshold to enable operators to hire migrant drivers. It’ll allow operators to compete more effectively with trucking companies and taxi services.”
Meeting service targets
Despite many challenges, the Council as a whole delivered and met 65% of its service targets for the year, plus there was “a massive staff effort” put into the Environment Court where new provisions were rigorously tested and validated in most cases, he says.
The Long-term Plan contains 36 Level of Service statements, 64 measures and 72 targets. Of these, 64 related to activities delivered in the 2021-22 year. Of the 64 measures, 42 targets were fully achieved, eight partially achieved and 12 were not achieved.
Iwi engagement; He Mahi Rau Rika ‘the work of a hundred hands’
Last October ORC adopted its new Significance, Engagement and Māori Participation Policy, named ‘He Mahi Rau Rika’; a name given by Kāi Tahu, which means ‘the work of a hundred hands’, representing the many perspectives and collective effort required to achieve success.
In June, an updated Terms of Reference for the Mana-to-Mana forum was signed between ORC and Kāi Tahu Papatipu Rūnaka, to deliver on a Memorandum of Understanding between the parties which was initially signed in 2003.
ORC is working in a partnership approach with Kai Tahu , which involves a close working relationship with Aukaha and Te Ao Marama, while at governance level, there is the partnership in the Land and Water Governance Group, which includes Councillors and iwi representatives.
Dr Borren says during the financial year there were 19 projects, or outputs, from the Council’s partnership with iwi.
“We’re particularly proud of our committed support of mana whenua participation in ORC workstreams and in decision-making,
and in building on the work we do in partnership,” he says.
In building toward the bicultural competency of ORC staff and Councillors, there were 57 participants in a programme, to
work alongside Te Ao Māori (Māori worldview), to better understand how it is relevant to Council’s work.
Dr Borren says climate change remains a major focus for the Council and a Principal Advisor Climate Change has been appointed.
“An inventory of local government climate change initiatives is complete, and a Council stocktake underway, all of which support development of a climate change road map,” he says.
Work has included programme development and workshops with local councils. The Council has also submitted on the draft National Adaptation Plan and the Emissions Reduction Plan.
Consents, compliance and Pollution Hotline
Dr Borren says a huge effort was put into consent processing by staff, who processed 100% of resource consents within legislative timeframes.
ORC received 603 consent applications, compared to 587 in 2020-21, and on average processed 55 resource consents per-month.
There was an increase in both consent applications and the number processed, largely from consents for residential earthworks and discharges from dairy farms.
During the year, Dr Borren says ORC issued 104 formal enforcement actions and an interim enforcement order, over pollution incidents or breaches of consent conditions.
They ranged from sediment discharge and outdoor burning to aerial spraying, waste and septic discharge; completing one prosecution, with six prosecutions ongoing.
Compliance monitoring included 1097 on-site audits and site inspections, 243 dairy inspections and 37 forestry inspections, with any non-compliance followed up by staff.
ORC’s Pollution Hotline was in “high demand” during the year with 1454 service requests relating to 1206 incidents; the most common being water pollution (326), outdoor burning (278) and odour (174).
“The staffing for incident response has increased to better reflect the high demand and provide coverage across Otago,” Dr Borren says.
Science and waterways
Dr Borren says the Council’s science team has also grown, with the Land and Water Regional Plan (LWRP) requiring an “enormous amount of work” to build the knowledge required for its development.
That included hydrology modelling, wetlands mapping, bio-monitoring and developing an urban water work programme.
The land work has involved contaminant reduction scenarios, collecting groundwater and surface water data, and learning more about land use and soil attributes, he says.
Aside from the LWRP, ORC continued its State of the Environment monitoring and expanded its network. The water monitoring programme covers 107 river and eight lake sites across Otago and measures indicators such as rainfall, flow, water level, groundwater as well as water quality attributes and macroinvertebrates.
Focus on a new Land and Water Regional Plan
Dr Borren says ORC’s planning programme for the year ahead is mostly focused on developing the new Land and Water Regional Plan, due to be publicly notified by the end of 2023.
“This will become the foundation document for years ahead and we’re working steadily towards this  deadline.”
“This important task to replace an outdated water plan, which has involved a huge volume and wide range of tasks.”
He notes there were further challenges and disruptions to ORC, shortly after the end of the financial year.
Subsequent events saw the departure of chief executive Sarah Gardner, flood events across North and Central Otago and Dunedin, a peak in the chronic national shortage of bus drivers prompting reduced bus timetables, then finally the election of a new Council.
Eight Councillors were re-elected and four new Councillors were elected.
In a recent welcome to the Councillors, Dr Borren outlined to them that during the next three years there is a heavy
workload ahead, including the setting of critical policies and rules to protect Otago’s water, land and air.
Also, there is ongoing environmental monitoring to better inform decision-making, and also in responding to numerous
types of environmental incidents.
“There will be ongoing pressure to balance the affordability of ORC’s work programmes with continued need for robust frameworks to regulate the use of our natural resources, while also achieving ‘on the ground’ results through operational activities,” he says.
Full Annual report 2021-2022
Summary Annual report 2021-2022