Whose Water…. and What Communities Value

When you fly into ChCh from the west, across the Southern Alps to the foothills, your first view of Canterbury water may be the aqua blue of Lake Coleridge.  It’s from the air that you experience the true magnificence of Canterbury’s braided rivers, the Rakaia and the Waimakariri. When I see those rivers, I know that I am well and truly home.      So whose water is it, the water that flows in those great rivers, and in springs, aquifers, streams, lakes and wetlands across Canterbury?

Most of us believe that water is a public resource, or a ‘commons’. Throughout our history, up until the last 20 years, we didn’t need to worry about water. There was plenty of clean water to drink, to swim in, to fish and to enjoy all the other privileges that water provides.  For millennia, our rivers flowed freely to the sea.

There is now a growing public unease about what has happened to our water. Maybe the Government did us a favour by catapulting water issues into the limelight. For those of us working on water issues over the last 10 years, it’s been a frustratingly slow process to halt, let alone reverse the degradation of Canterbury’s freshwater.   Now, as a result of Government action, increasing numbers of people from all walks of life, are becoming concerned at the wresting of water from public ownership.

I’ve been impressed by people who have recently spoken out on the subject of water and would like to mention one or two…

On the 13 June, at a gathering  in Cathedral Square, there were several speakers talking about water and what it means to them. Morgan Waru, a 17 yr old girl said, “When I look at the Government in power... What do I see?  I see a government that would sack an elected council and encourage a series of water schemes that take our water away from us.  She went on to say… ‘This water is a part of us. This water belongs to no one person or one government.  To take it without listening, insults New Zealand and insults democracy.’

She went on to say that the water is already allocated. I presume she meant, allocated to the rivers and to their ecosystems, allocated to the aquifers and allocated to the people of Canterbury.

Morgan’s is a young voice, the voice of the future.  I think we need to apologise to our youth for what we have allowed to happen, and I for one, feel sorry that they will inherit our mistakes.

An older member of the public, 91yr old Ruby Fowler, former Christchurch City Councillor, was so concerned at the loss of her vote that she made a deputation to the City Council. She urged Councillors to help restore her vote on water management and to protect Christchurch’s drinking water.  This issue is so important to Ruby that she sat in 3 degree temps, wrapped up against the cold, along with other citizens, young and old, to listen to the speakers in the Square.

Clearly, there is an up swelling of public unease about the future of freshwater as Cantabrians come to realise that a large share of the resource, is being appropriated for corporate and commercial interests.

The CPW commissioners also acknowledged in their decision, that water is a public resource.  I quote  “ In passing we observe, that in our view it would be preferable for all water users to be charged for use of this public resource for private purposes… they go on to say “However the question of charging for water is a matter for Parliament, not us”.

So whose water is it? Clearly it’s yours, it’s mine, it belongs to the people of Canterbury and all New Zealanders. It’s on loan to us by nature and we should all be inspired by that belief. However, I think some of us have not yet reached that point of understanding or choose to ignore it in the pursuit of personal, financial wealth.

What Communities Value

My starting point for this topic is my own local community in the Malvern Hills, and the values that were important to us as we faced the prospect of massive water storage development  at our back door.

One of the most important values that was eroded in our community, was the sense of what is right and what is fair. It was a common theme in the submissions of affected residents and landowners against the scheme.

The feelings of injustice were real and remain so today, even though the dam and reservoirwas finally rejected on the grounds that the economic benefits were insufficient to outweigh the significant adverse impacts on the people and communities.

The heritage and cultural landscapes of the Malvern Hills is deemed significant and special to local communities. Early Maori inhabited the foothills, and it’s one of the first European settled areas in Canterbury. CPW still proposes to build a 50m wide canal that will cut through three Deans’s properties at historic Homebush.

Local communities place a high value on the health of drinking water supplies and local waterways. People from all over Canterbury made submissions on the CPW scheme because of concerns about the  declining state of rivers, aquifers, and Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere.

Another value staunchly guarded by our community is the right to be heard. It was extremely important for people to have their say.  It is the current Government’s intention to fast track processes and deny Cantabrians a voice in water management and future large-scale storage developments.  Through my experiences with the CPW hearing, I saw firsthand how important it is for processes to be open, transparent and inclusive and for communities to be involved with the decision-making.

Values held by the wider community include access to high quality drinking water and the protection of public health.  The increasing contamination of drinking water across Canterbury by intensive farming is of major and ongoing concern.  3% of the bores tested within the CPW scheme area already exceed the Maximum Allowable Value for nitrogen. How many bores will exceed the nitrate/nitrogen limits when the plains are even more intensively farmed and who will pay to rectify the situation?    The recent outbreak of e-coli in the Dunsandel Community well is a wake up call. This is not the first e-coli outbreak in Canterbury, but it is the first instance of contamination at this depth. The Dunsandel well is 70m deep.

There are now almost one million cows in Canterbury. A cow produces 50 ls of raw effluent a day, the same as 14 humans. Multiply that by 1 million.  The effects of intensive farming on the gravely soils of the plains are well documented but what is required is urgent action to reverse these effects if we are to prevent further contamination of ground and surface waters.

Communities are also concerned at the impacts of changing land use on our landscapes. Intensive farming has altered the landscape dramatically in a very short time. On the Canterbury Plains, plantations have been cut down, and hedges and shelter trees removed, affecting not only the visual landscape but also the biodiversity that thrives in that vegetation. The arrival of pivot irrigators, dairy sheds and milk factories are industrialising the landscape. A second milk factory is proposed by Fonterra at Racecourse Hill, in the beautiful foothills country near Darfield, on the Main West Coast Tourist Highway.  I hear that Fonterra’s application to build the factory is to be lodged in the beginning of July.

Look at the Upper Waitaki and the growing objection to the ‘greening’ of the Mackenzie Basin.  Changes have been rapid there too.

More grassland has been completely converted in the 19 years from 1990 to 2009 than in the previous 150 years of human settlement ( Dr. Susan Walker).  With the loss of iconic landscapes, comes the loss of indigenous bio diversity. The Canterbury region has the 2nd highest number of threatened plants of any botanical region in NZ. On the Canterbury Plains there is less than 10% indigenous cover remaining.

From a Listener article about irrigating the Mackenzie Country I quote  Where developers notice only hieracium and bare earth, Dr Susan Walker (Landcare scientist),  points out a host of small highly specialised and acutely threatened species are surviving only in this extreme environment. She said, irrigating large sweeps of the basin like the Pukaki Flats and Lake Ohau’s outwash moraine, amounts to the ecological equivalent of clear felling a rainforest………end of quote.

In conclusion, I agree with Murray Rodgers when he wrote in his book that… Canterbury is at a tipping point where we face long-term degradation of our water resources and the associated social and economic consequences – if indeed we have not already tipped beyond recovery (end of quote…. from Canterbury’s Wicked Water).

To this I would add the associated bio-diversity loss and the homogenisation of our landscapes.

It’s a pessimistic view and I hope he is wrong!

Rosalie Snoyink

24 June 2010