Canterbury doesn’t need another dysfunctional elected council making decisions on water, former Environment Minister Nick Smith says:
As a cabinet minister, he sacked elected Environment Canterbury councillors and replaced them with commissioners.
When their term expires next year, he hopes they will be replaced by a mixed council of elected and Government-appointed representatives.
In Ashburton on Thursday at a Federated Farmers water forum, he said there were some big water decisions ahead of Canterbury, including bulk storage and tapping into alpine rivers protected by Water Conservation Orders.
He said a fully-elected regional council making those decisions would result in the same “dog’s breakfast” left by the previous council, with views polarised into urban and rural camps.
What is it about Canterbury? From the outside, the Christchurch City Council seems to be similarly troubled by dysfunction and it doesn’t have theexcuse of a rural-urban divide.
Sacking the elected councillors from ECan was not a decision taken lightly. The Commissioners appointed to replace them were tasked with forming a water plan which ECan had been struggling to do for 20 years.
That plan has been superseded by a national Land and Water plan but it still needs a local body to oversee it.
Nature has made more than enough of a dogs’ breakfast in Canterbury without aggravating problems with another dysfunctional regional council.
Mr Smith said there was no shortage of water in Canterbury, but too much of the water taken for economic use came from aquifers and lowland streams.
“They only make up 15 per cent of our water resource; 85 per cent is in the big alpine river systems but the moment anyone comes along and tries to use the water everyone says ‘no’.”
He said there was a good chance water rights would be pegged back if there was no progress on storage or alpine river resources could not be tapped.
That would have consequences for both farmers and the economy.
Mid Canterbury has around 160,000ha of irrigated farmland, returning a gross farm income of $1.36 billion.
Farmers spent around $800 million.
By contrast, a 250,000ha Australian cattle station currently had a gross farm income of $50m.
Those with short memories might have forgotten the economic, environmental and social devastation caused by droughts in Canterbury and North Otago before we had irrigation.
Those who farmed and lived through them appreciate the value of water applied carefully when required.
Those of a deep green persuasion believe that water should flow from the mountains to the sea untroubled by human and technological intervention.
Those of more moderate views know it is possible to irrigate in a way that increases production and protects soils without degrading waterways.