Last week, a special panel appointed by the Environment and Local Government Ministers issued its recommendations on how water use and protection should be managed in Canterbury.

In a nutshell, the panel recommended firing Environment Canterbury, the area’s regional council. From its report:

“…the Review Group has concluded that ECan’s performance on water policy and management issues (allocation and quality) falls well short of what is essential. This failure requires comprehensive and rapid intervention on the part of central government to protect and enhance both regional and national well-being. Failure to intervene will lead to continued lack of progress in water management in Canterbury. The Review Group considers that a profound change in approach is required to existing institutional frameworks to address this matter properly.”

Wow! Granted, around 70% of NZ’s freshwater resource is in the Canterbury Region, so the situation and stakes are especially high there. The Report documents massive shortcomings in Environment Canterbury’s stewardship of water in the region, many of which are failures unique to that council.

However, as Gary Taylor of the Environmental Defence Society points out (here):

“…water problems are not confined to Canterbury. Certainly that is the region with the most irrigation but water quality problems are evident around New Zealand. This report puts all regional councils on notice that they need to lift their performance and that government is looking for improved governance in freshwater management.

“I note that the Minister is not making any immediate decisions. That is wise. The Report should be considered by the Land and Water Forum which is examining freshwater management nationally to see if there are any New Zealand wide implications from the findings and recommendations.”

[Ironically, the same day this report was issued, John Key was in HB urging more irrigation and dairying. Perhaps he should get off that soapbox at least until the Land and Water Forum comes to some conclusions!]

I’m sure the Canterbury Report is now required reading at our own HB Regional Council. On the “Scale of Bungling” of regional water management, the HBRC does not appear to match the poor performance of Environment Canterbury. [Although some would say the chief distinction is that at least our Hearings Committee gives away our water more quickly!]

The Regional Council is moving, albeit in verrrry … sloooow … mooootion, on Tukituki and Mohaka clean-up issues. Maybe the staff is stretched too thin.

Yet we have $2 million “feasibility” study underway to explore the case for dams on the upper Tukituki to enable more irrigation (and more dairyng?) in CHB.

Let’s get serious here … who has ever heard of a Council spending $2 million on a “feasibility” study that concludes: “Hey, stop, the original proposition sucks!”? More accurately and honestly, ratepayers should consider this a $2 million down payment on a much larger infrastructure investment.

Perhaps the Regional Council should focus first on getting right the water management responsibilities it already carries.

Otherwise, it might simply provide more evidence for the Environmental Defence Society’s view (perhaps shared by some Ministers) … that management of a vital national strategic asset like water might be simply too big, too important, and too complex a job to be left to locals.

Tom Belford

P.S. For a different point of view on Canterbury implications, here’s an excerpt from the Green Party’s release:

“These recommendations are an attack on local democracy,” Green Party Co-leader Russel Norman said. “If implemented, the people of Canterbury would have no democratically-elected regional council to represent their interests. Key decisions about water management would be taken away from elected councillors and put in the hands of a new Government-appointed board. This could be abused by big dairy and commercial interests as an opportunity to ram through new irrigation projects without due process.”

It will fascinating to watch our Regional Councillors make common cause with the Green party on this one … democracy is terrific, when it supports your position!

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  1. Perhaps the first step is to revisit the question; Irrigation means more production from Land means more exports means more income for the producer – all at a cost to the populace in general. What is wrong with this Pic?

    Everyone should pay so a few can make a bigger profit. Irrigation for personal use – no problem with that, but irrigation to make more money – those involved should foot the bill for that and the systems to control it, not the regional councils who are taxpayer funded.

  2. The underlying problem (in management terms) is that there is no value placed on water. That is, it might cost a little to gain a consent, but having gained it you pay nothing for the water you use. No other resource is allocated free – what makes water (arguably the most precious of all resources) immune to costs? So, so long as we continue to give it away, our landscapes soils and indeed communities will continue to suffer from "upstream abuse". Making water cost – in holistic real impact dollars – would be the one most significant step Govt/councils could take to redress overconsumption and all consequent problems.

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