Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Keeping Our Heads Above Water

New Zealand is a country blessed with copious quantities of fresh water. Recently some parts of our country have had a lot more than they want, some a lot less. It is an extraordinarily precious resource that must be cared for and used more wisely than it is being used at present.

Historically water usage in Canterbury, and in wider New Zealand, has been very opportunist. We have taken water from wherever we can get it and have used it for whatever we wanted to use it for. We have not had sufficient regard for the way it has been extracted, the way we have treated it and the way we have returned it to the environment. That is all changing. In my opinion 2017 will be the year that the real issues about the sensible utilisation of water right across our communities will begin to be understood and accepted.

In Canterbury almost all the available fresh water passes through or under the Canterbury Plains and out to sea. However, because of the way we have extracted water we have put pressure on very vulnerable areas in our environment, both through creating water shortages and through contaminating water systems in a way that is not sustainable. We need to work out ways to maximise the economic benefit of fresh water utilisation while concurrently protecting and continuously improving water quality and availability.

To drive this change we will inevitably need to harness existing and new technologies which are becoming cheaper, more powerful, more available and more applicable every day. Those technologies will be driven by far better data collection and analysis to ensure we make the right decisions. We will need to ensure that we get communities buying into the need for a different approach to water management. This will reduce waste and inefficiency, allow flexibility and support the development of infrastructure to ensure reliability of storage and water supply. We will also need to demonstrate leadership with respect to how we make better decisions with regards to water utilisation and how we facilitate investment and longer term planning to ensure that we use available water equitably and wisely.

The harvesting and controlled distribution of large volumes of water along the east side of the main divide will be critical in this regard. There have already been good examples of water schemes that harvest and farm water. The Opuha Scheme in South Canterbury is one, and more recently the Central Plains Water Scheme in North Canterbury which not only takes excessive run of river water when it can but also uses Lake Coleridge as a water sink to ensure reliability of supply. These schemes can guarantee water supply when it is needed and also support and encourage the amelioration of environment damage that has been done in the past.

The Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) has been a good model to manage water allocation and utilisation to date but it is just at its beginning. The important thing about the CWMS model is that it relies on input from right across various participants in our community, all of whom have different requirements for the protection and/or utilisation of water. It relies heavily on reaching a consensus with regards to how water is allocated. That inevitably involves compromise, an appreciation to think strategically and agree on what is the best outcome for the wider community.

Our future is not about putting unreasonable restrictions on water utilisation. It is much more about sourcing water from where we can and utilising it in a way that does not involve environmental degradation. That is possible with use of good technology, sensible water management structures, strategic thinking and good leadership. We can do that in Canterbury and we can lead the way for others to follow.   

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