Understanding New Zealand’s fresh water crisis: Part 1

This is Part 1 of a 2 part series looking at New Zealand’s fresh water crisis.

It is probably the single most important thing anyone should have in their diet. It’s availability is something that will probably  cause a major war at some point in the future, as nations in drier parts of the world quarrel over how much water their neighbours should be allowed to take. It is wanted by all for uses as diverse as electricity generation, washing, drinking, food preparation, irrigation, use in industrial processes, to name just a couple. But how many people actually appreciate the challenges facing environmental planners in New Zealand and abroad with fresh water? How many understand the meaning of finite resource? Some days I wonder.

New Zealand is a very lucky country. It has numerous fresh lakes, rivers, streams and some of the best artesian water supplies in the world under the Canterbury plains. Due to its wide open spaces, Canterbury, like Manawatu in the North Island large parts of Waikato, Taranaki, Bay of Plenty, among other provinces, has a large number of dairy farms. They contribute more than $13 billion per annum to the New Zealand economy and have created tens of thousands of jobs on farms, in irrigation, in processing plants among others. They compete with a host of other users such as recreationalists, urban residents, industry, electricity generation and food growers for access to a resource that in many respects has reached its maximum capacity. Growing population pressures, a reluctance to reduce water use through better management pocesses and continual demand for more, has put serious stress on many lakes, streams, rivers and aquifers.

It is also a political minefield. Acrcusations of being anti-development or belonging to the Greens will surface if one says that no further consents to take, dam, divert freshwater should be allowed. However,  just as likely are accusations of belonging to Federated Farmers or the National Party, for saying that the Resource Management Act is too restrictive, that councils have a problem with farmers and so forth.

The sad fact of the matter though, is that many rivers, lakes and stream catchments simply do not have any more water to offer, and that the water some farms are actually taking is not from their surface water allocation zone. Through a concept called “Cone of Depression“, the water is actually being sucked in from adjacent catchments, thus denying the ability to fully allocate available fresh water resources in that catchment. One might say that the answer is to lower the minimum flows required in statutory plans prepared by Regional Councils. It is not that simple as minimum flows are, based on the known hydrological behaviour of a catchment, representative of the lowest flow a waterway can flow at and still maintain its ecosystem, still provide for the reasonable drinking water needs of locals, and other uses. Letting the ecosystem degrade is not an answer either as there eventually comes a point where the degradation starts degrading the resource for other users as well and eventually costs money to clean up.

But not is lost. See Part 2 for more.


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