Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Canterbury Water – Are We Doing Enough?

On 18 March I was privileged to chair a free public forum hosted by the Southern Environmental Trust and supported by the Rotary Club of Christchurch South. The forum addressed the issue of the utilisation of water in Canterbury and questioned whether or not we were doing enough to optimise the quality and quantity of water available for various cultural, social, environmental and economic uses.

In short the report card came out with “good in some areas, but room for improvement”. Much of the presentation revolved around the evolution of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) which is a new paradigm in water management in Canterbury and in fact right across New Zealand. The CWMS is working and provides a cross-community intelligent approach to the achievement of desired outcomes and water management. It has created new relationships, new thinking and new solutions driven from a cross-community perspective. The CWMS depends upon effective engagement with communities, it builds on developing relationships with diverse interests across wide catchments.

There was consensus at the forum that we will reach an optimal solution for water utilisation in Canterbury, not a perfect solution. That the optimal solution will be based on collaboration, respect and consensus. The old days of a polarised debate are generally over. It is now much more about a consensual approach to the vital issues and that approach is based on accurate data, accurate information, clear understanding and good science.

Of course we do need to ensure that we take a reality check on the management tools that we are using to measure our impacts on water and it is expected that those will change and be modified over time. Importantly the forum agreed that the CWMS needs time to achieve desired outcomes. Of course there are the tensions of dealing with increased economic activity and the need for improving and enhancing water quality. There was wide agreement on the need to protect and enhance bio-diversity related to our water catchments and general agreement that the Zone Committees who manage the various catchments in Canterbury will be making judgement calls in the context of water management values.

There was also consensus on the importance of storage and the need to harvest and farm water in the foothills of the Southern Alps to make that water available to recharge aquifers, provide water for irrigation, recharge our low-land rivers, remediate some of the environmental damage done in Lake Te Waihora and ensure that we continue to have potable water for human consumption.

The application of technology to farming and how that will impact on the optimal and efficient use of water was highlighted. Farming systems that can far more accurately measure the demand for water on land and ensure that we are involved in sustainable farming practices will be the way of the future. Of course the forum was reminded that the urban dwellers of Canterbury have an impact on water consumption and are responsible to ensure it is used optimally and sustainably.

There was consensus that the costs to agriculture in adopting better water management practices on the farm are significant and that costs will need to be absorbed over time. Although dairying is a key water user in Canterbury, all farming impacts on water usage and the agriculture sector generally needs to ensure that it is playing its part in good water management.

In terms of measuring the impact of the CWMS it was agreed that the real outcome is the environmental outcome that we in Canterbury can enjoy the abundant water that is available in the right place, in the right condition, at the right time. Finally the forum agreed that water is a toanga (a treasure) that belongs to us all and that we all have responsibility for. It was refreshing to see such an intelligent and mature debate on what is such a critical issue for our region. It was also refreshing to sense the optimism there is in the pursuit of good outcomes in Canterbury water management. 

The Canterbury Water Free Public Forum was chaired by Peter Townsend, CEO of the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and involved presentation by Ken Hughey (Lincoln University), Pat McEvedy (Selwyn District Councillor), Claire Mckay (farmer, North Canterbury) and Jay Graybill (Fish & Game Council). It was a free public forum hosted by the Southern Environmental Trust and supported by the Rotary Club of Christchurch South.

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