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Unconsented works have been carried out in a Coromandel coastal wetland by a council that should be enforcing environmental laws – not breaking them, says Forest & Bird.

Waikato Regional Council is considering whether to take enforcement action against Thames Coromandel District Council (TCDC) for carrying out works without resource consent at McGregor Bay wetland, says Forest & Bird central North Island regional manager Rebecca Stirnemann.

Three rare banded rails have died in the past year trying to cross a road through the wetland, because an apparently illegal floodgate blocks their passage under a bridge, Dr Stirnemann says.

The floodgate was installed without resource consent in the McGregor Bay Wetland by a member of the public in about 2015.

Thames Coromandel District Council has taken no action to get the floodgate removed, nor has it fined the person who installed the floodgate without consent, Dr Stirnemann says.

The council now claims ownership of the floodgate, because it’s on a council culvert that runs under the road. However, it has not applied for retrospective resource consent for the floodgate – and Waikato Regional Council says it needs to.

In 2014, TCDC deepened a drain just outside the wetland reserve that continues through the wetland and connects to a creek on private property. TCDC carried out this work without resource consent at the request of neighbouring landowners to reduce flooding of their low lying paddocks during heavy rain.

After deepening the drain, TCDC dumped the fill beside the waterway, forming a bund – again without resource consent.

Waikato Regional Council has advised TCDC it needs retrospective resource consent for the drain digging and bund.

Coromandel Forest & Bird member and McGregor Bay Wetland Society chairperson Carol Sutherland says banded rails follow the tide in and out, but can’t go under the bridge because of the floodgate.

“The threatened banded rails have to cross the road to get to the mangroves on the other side.

“Twice a day they have to run the gauntlet.

“The floodgate is a concrete slab which only has a tiny hole, so it stops the natural flow of seawater into the wetland and it stops fish passage as well,” she says.

The wetland was originally about 8.3 hectares, but has been reduced to less than half its original size by filling and drainage over the years.

Forest & Bird wants the floodgate removed to allow more natural water flow - something the community and various groups have been battling for since the 1990s.

The conservation organisation also wants the council to put the fill back into the drain it deepened.

The 3.4 hectare wetland may be small, but it’s a microcosm of the problems facing wetlands around Coromandel Peninsula and the rest of New Zealand, says Dr Stirnemann.

Wetlands act as a vital buffer between land and sea, filtering water before it reaches the ocean – but 75% of Waikato wetlands have already been destroyed, she says.

“Many species of native birds, fish and eels are found in wetlands and they provide a critical habitat for migratory birds, many of which could not survive without healthy wetlands,” says Dr Stirnemann.

“Sadly, wetlands are being filled, drained and blocked all too often so people can build houses in low lying areas or farm close to the coast.”

She is calling for councils to check for damage to wetlands and to take stronger action when rules protecting precious wetlands are broken.

Forest & Bird freshwater advocate Annabeth Cohen says new national rules offering stronger protection for wetlands and freshwater ecosystems are expected next year.

"If the new regulations had been in place, we might have been able to save nearly 1000 wetlands that have been degraded or completely destroyed over the past two decades," Ms Cohen says.

“Since 2001, at least 13 percent of New Zealand's freshwater wetlands have been damaged or destroyed."

Images and further information:

For high resolution photos of the floodgate and banded rails in the wetland, click on this Dropbox link.

For responses from Thames Coromandel District Council and Waikato Regional Council to official information act requests from Forest & Bird, click here.

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