Government to end irrigation funding

Last week it was announced that the public funding of irrigation projects is going to be wound down. The move, which has elicited complaints of a “kick in the guts” from some farmers, and National, has also drawn widespread praise from pro-environment groups and Greenpeace.

I support this move entirely. I do not believe that it is in New Zealand’s interests to have public funding redirected towards irrigation.

New Zealand is at peak dairying. The industry is as big as it is going to get. The environmental cost will be like mining into an unstable slope – one wants the gold to show investors, but are completely oblivious to the danger of dairy herds. One animal may produce as much as 10x the output of a human being in excrement. Vast tracks of the Mackenzie Basin have been or are being converted to dairying. The cost to ratepayers to maintain water quality standards is increasing and tourists are becoming aware of the problems that dairy farming is causing.

Do not get me wrong. Irrigation has its place in New Zealand. However the extent to which it appears to influence economic policy is not proper and nor is it practical. Many rivers are completely allocated in terms of available surface and ground water. No matter how one reallocates the water it will not change the fact that it is 100% allocated and that reallocation is simply re slicing the pie.

Nor will it change the fact that the high intensity usage of water for dairy farming has had a substantial impact on the environment.The effects of this range from a widespread decline in water quality to potential salinisation of aquifers in coastal areas.  In the aquatic environment of fresh water courses such as lakes, rivers and streams, water quality has degraded significantly and this is shown in the reduction of the number of water bodies where one can physically the water. Cyanobacteria forms more readily in water courses whose low flows in summer have been exacerbated by increased water use – it presents as a green-blue algae and is deadly to dogs if consumed.

I also have concerns about the welfare of animals. Not normally something I comment on, but wish to point out with relation to South Island high country. In a harsh sub alpine environment with intense winter cold with large open spaces, grazing stock would find it a challenge staying warm, whilst in summer there would be little shelter from the sun and temperatures which can reach 40°C. Keeping them adequately protected protected when shelter belts that double as wind breaks against northwesterlies have been removed to enable K-line irrigators to work, is a significant concern.

This move, whilst welcome is just the first step, as a comprehensive programme will be needed across New Zealand to undo the potential damage and keep the tourists coming.


The Government’s looming water fight

There is an issue simmering in the background of New Zealand politics that threatens to split the Government. For all the scenes of unity and co-operation coming out of the Beehive, a combination of an ideologically divisive issue, indigenous claims to ownership and fears of a gravy train is threatening to erupt into a major three way water fight.

There are several major issues with the way the use of fresh water is governed in New Zealand, not least:

  1. Iwi have significant claims vis-a-vis the Treaty of Waitangi to how water is used, and the aesthetic properties of fresh water bodies such as the mauri or life force
  2. Everyone by biological default needs clean drinking water – which makes this a medical issue, as well as a planning issue for councils
  3. The rate of use in New Zealand is not sustainable – the known fresh water resource in many catchments is 100% allocated
  4. On numerous waterways, the minimum flow set by regional councils is too low and subsequently the creeks, streams and rivers in question are not able to perform its natural functions as well as they should

The politics of water became complicated long before the Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took office. Having a minority Government with two significantly smaller minority parties propping up a larger party and all of them having significantly different views of water as a resource, has only served to complicate the picture further.

So, why do I say a fresh water fight is looming? Simple. The Green Party is categorically opposed to further irrigation projects siphoning off more of New Zealand’s precious fresh water resource. New Zealand First’s drive for the rural vote might intersect this. But it will not be that which starts the water fight. It will be the Government attempt to address water rights with Maori and the potential – as New Zealand First believes – to start a gravy train of other claims.

I am of the belief no one person, company, party, country or other entity can claim ownership of water as a resource. Its common physical properties mean everyone needs water to survive. Everyone needs it for hygiene, drinking, cooking purposes at the very least and that the totally fundamental common nature of this resource means that by default if a claim can be made at all to ownership, that claim is made by all people. All people have a common responsibility to ensure the stewardship of water is sustainable.

I agree with New Zealand First that Maori should not have ownership rights per se. One reason is the potential for a gravy train of other claims to form in terms of natural resources. The slippery nature of the slope and where New Zealand might end up as a result of being on it, suggests to me that this is an issue that might be best avoided altogether.

And so, New Zealand First and Labour’s first big scrap is looming. Unavoidable, but perhaps too big to want to try to avoid. Before anything happens in Parliament, a lot of water is going to flow under the proverbial bridge.

Perceptions and reality of water loss two different things

Yesterday a report came out suggesting that New Zealand wastes 100 billion litres of water a year. Whilst  the amount seems massive to a single human being, after reading this article and noting the example in it, would you still believe 100 billion litres per year to be such a massive amount?

If we took the 100 billion litres of water lost each year, my guess is that quite a bit would go missing through poorly maintained or derelict pipes that are simply not fit for purpose any longer. Some would be lost because of poor counters, inaccurate records. If attempts to track water loss around individual homes are made a whole range of issues pop up ranging from leaks behind walls, poor pipes between the council monitored counter and the dwelling.

Sometimes natural events such as earthquakes, flooding and landslides destroy pipes. In the time it takes to notice the breakage, report it to the council and have someone come out to fix it, thousands of litres of water would have been lost. And we do not know if it accounts for water pumped out from around the pipes so that repairs could be effected?

But would councils have the money necessary to overhaul their water infrastructure? Would people be willing to have all of their roads ripped up to replace the obsolete piping underneath, never mind the disruption it would cause?

To put the figure into perspective. Right now, running higher than normal because of heavy rain, the Waimakariri River is running at 240m³ per second or about 240,000 litres per second. It can in a 1-in-100 year return period flood discharge 4,000m³ or about 4 million litres per second.

I believe based on other complaints about misuse of our fresh water resource, that the real problems lie with water quality, paying royalties for large scale fresh water takes. The problems also lie with the extent to which we have developed our fresh water resources already and that unless we prepared to scale back future applications for fresh water takes, the problem with public perceptions about fresh water may be also about how much we know as citizens about it as a resource.


Protecting the whitebait fishery in New Zealand

Whitebait are a New Zealand delicacy. Every year hundreds of people try their hand at catching the tasty translucent morsels that enter our coastal waterways. On the market, a kilogram of whitebait may fetch N.Z.$90.

Whitebait patties are how most whitebait that are caught end up. Their popularity is enduring by virtue of the relative ease and speed of making them. They were the entree at the A.P.E.C. 1999 State Banquet held for the then United States President Bill Clinton and the Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

But whitebait are in danger of extinction. Their immense popularity, damage to their habitat and (this is debatable)over fishing of the delicacy, which have five subspecies in New Zealand – climbing galaxias, common galaxias, banded kokopu, shortjaw kokopu and giant kokopu have brought about severe challenges for a popular recreational past time. This has brought with it, talk of possibly closing the fishery for a period of one or two years during which there is a complete ban on whitebaiting, with the idea being that whitebait would be able to regain some of their population.

Whitebait habitat damage, and in particular their spawning grounds is the most serious threat they face. A spawning ground might be only a couple standard glass houses in area, but in that area tens of thousands of whitebait will be depositing their eggs, and the destruction of that one spawning ground might be the difference between whether or not that particular river/stream/creek/estuary/lagoon has a meaningful whitebait population the following year.

I and my father whitebait each year. We have no problems with compliance and follow local regulations specific to the Canterbury area and fisheries. We do it because we enjoy eating whitebait and are not there to make a profit from doing so, which some are – our purpose has always been to put food on the table, which is what I believe all hunting and fishing should be about. We do not leave any litter or other debris behind that might enter their habitat and cause adverse effects.

Pollutants entering the habitat – cigarette butts, plastics, and so forth – are another threat that needs to be considered. This is a general common pollution issue that should be dealt with separately by way of enforcement action by local council rangers. Fines and – most appropriately – making the offender participate in a rubbish clean up would be a good way of getting the message across.

No quotas exist for whitebaiters. It is debatable whether there needs to be quotas. One will immediately ask, if quotas exist, how are they going to be enforced and the only answer from hard experience is by ground enforcement on the spot. There would need to be many rangers enforcing the quotas and there is a possibility that they would – like anyone involved in law enforcement – possibly have to deal with hostile people. The quota size itself would also be up for debate. Sometimes several kilogrammes of whitebait might be caught each day, and then there might be none or little for several days or even weeks – nearly all we caught this year was taken in the final week of the season.

Whitebaiters are permitted to whitebait from dawn to dusk. They are allowed nets and gobi’s (nylon fencing on poles)that extend from the net to the shore. The combined net/gobi arrangement cannot take up more than 1/3 of a channel width and must be manned at all times. A whitebait net cannot be less than 20 metres from another whitebait net. The season start time varies from one region to the next – the Canterbury one started in mid-August and ended at sunset 30 November.

I don’t want any children I might eventually have or anyone else who has children to be denied the opportunity to show them an easy and fun – albeit sometimes patience testing – mode of fishing. So, let us enjoy our whitebait, but apply a bit of common sense and protect the habitats, don’t take more than you want to use and respect the other whitebaiters who have come to try their luck.

Common sense really.

Greens/New Zealand First bickering a boon to National

Today I heard that Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei had called out New Zealand First leader Winston Peters on the immigration policy of his party. In an interview with T.V.N.Z. journalist Jessica Mutch, Ms Turei said that Mr Peters’ party policy was racist. Mr Peters was quick to respond, saying that the Greens should not think there would be no consequences for making those remarks.

Whether you agree with Ms Turei or Mr Peters, ownership of water is something no one person has. Water is collectively owned by everyone. We have a vested interest due to the physical characteristics of the water cycle in ensuring that the water that we use depart our usage in as good quality as that which we received it.

Maori and non Maori both place values consistent with their upbringing on natural resources. Maori may view themselves as kaitiaki (guardians)of the resource. Non-Maori may disagree as I am sure many do. A fisherman will want the water to be clean so that the fish s/he is catching is healthy and able to reproduce and if being caught for consumption, obviously safe to consume. An urban area, town or dwelling will likewise want good water quality so that their occupants can safely use the water for cooking, washing, drinking and so forth.

But back to two parties immaturely bickering. After a torrid few weeks, Prime Minister Bill English will no doubt be quietly delighted at the sudden burst of bickering between New Zealand First and the Greens. The National strategists will be looking for ways to exploit it.

The spat is likely to be bothersome for both parties, given that they need to co-operate against a party that is still doing very well in the polls, whilst Labour is still in the doldrums. Labour will be hoping the strategists and the politicians in both parties quickly see the light and calm down. In an election with huge implications for New Zealand’s future, the last thing the centre-left can afford to be seen doing is fighting among itself.