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.


New Zealand water not for giving away

When the news broke that a Chinese investor group had been able to buy up a consent for taking fresh water and bottling it without being charged for anything other than monitoring, I was not very surprised. With the Government attitude of indifference to fresh water as a resource and its deliberate fudging of fresh water quality standards, it was unrealistic to expect anything else.

There are a number of problems with the buying of this consent. It goes against everything most New Zealanders would want to have happen with their fresh water resource and it raises ethical questions about looking after our natural environment.

So, what are those problems?

  1. The consent that has been granted is for 15 years. This is a very long time in a world where the environment is under constant and growing stress. Before the consent expires the physical parameters of the aquifers that are considered when issuing a consent are likely to have changed so much that the consent is rendered obsolete.
  2. Does Christchurch have 4,100 spare cubic metres of water per day to be bottled and sold overseas? When a resource is 100% allocated, it is 100% allocated and – contrary to the belief of politicians and councillors – like 100% of anything else that means there is no more of the resource available for allocation. To attempt to do is to start to deplete the allocation for other water takes.
  3. The deceit in not telling ratepayers that this consent has been bought by non-New Zealand investors will anger many. I spent good portion of today wondering what else is being hidden. It turns out that others have been bottling water in New Zealand, including near Tai Tapu for years.
  4. No royalties are paid to the Crown and the bottling companies does not get charged anything except to cover the monitoring costs of Environment Canterbury.

I believe that the lapse time for water consents should be significantly reduced. I further believe that upon lapsing the consent holder should be reminded to give effect to the consent within a matter of months, or surrender it within that time frame after which it should be revoked. Due to the sensitivity of water as a resource, that the monitoring requirements should be steeper than they currently are – more frequent monitoring and a review of consent conditions every few years should become mandatory.

But the purchasing of that consent also raises ethical issues. Water is a resource that upon no longer being needed by one user, should depart in the same or better condition than that in which it arrived. It is a resource that no one, person, group, company, nation and so on can claim true ownership to. The boundaries of water are only those defined by the parameters of the Earth as a planetary system and any structure – man made or not – that it cannot seep through. It’s need is universal – without water the natural systems cannot sustain life. Degrading it as a resource ultimately degrades the planet and everything living on it.

No amount of science, economics or politics can change the universality of water. But trying to explain that is easier said than done.

When geomorphology and human existence collide

As a natural hazards postgraduate, and one with a natural interest in geomorophological processes, I have been talking to people about their perceptions of the changes wrought by the Waiau earthquake of 14 November 2016. It has been a topic of conversation that people have generally readily participated in.

From these conversations I have deduced that a lot of people – both elected officials trying to sound positive in the face of adversity, and people not really understanding the hidden geomorphological process – do not understand the scale of the changes wrought. There are perceptions that somehow the road and railways will reopen again shortly. There are perceptions that the landslide dam hazard will last only a few weeks and then everything will be back to normal, that rivers will flow like they had before the earthquakes. Unfortunately that is not going to be the case.

One of the numerous effects that the landslide damming of these rivers will have is to change the ecology of them. Some of the smaller landslides will not affect the rivers in the long term, as the river will carve out a channel around the toe of the landslide, which in turn will be washed away or stabilize as a permanent feature. Larger landslides however may semi-permanently dam the rivers whose catchment they occurred in, so that the ecology downstream and how people use the river as a resource change too. The largest landslides will completely dam rivers, leading to one of two outcomes:

  1. The river stablizes, and water is able to safely drain into the river without undermining the dam
  2. A potentially catastrophic dam burst event where the dam fails and a large volume of water potentially in the 000’s m³s-¹ occurs

Following and during the latter outcome, a large amount of sediment will be deposited in a very short time, which will completely relay the layout of the riverbed channels. With channels that were occupied now suddenly buried, that means the water may start flowing down old channels that might not have been occupied since before European settlement. Rivers in Kaikoura and Hurunui Districts are affected by landslides, a list of which can be seen on the Environment Canterbury website:


In the short term with summer coming on and these rivers being popular for fishing, canoeing/kayaking, boating, but also supplying irrigation water to farms and drinking water to a number of small towns, the availability of water could be severely impaired because of the reduced flows. In many small towns where rivers provide recreational opportunities that are the livelihoods of local businesses, the combination of severe flash flood hazards from landslide dams and river levels being too low for jet boat tours, and so forth a lean summer might await. There is also a risk that some of the smaller dams may fail in this time causing short sharp flash flood events where anyone and any property on the affected river bed would be in immediate danger.

In the medium term consents for water takes might change as the long term effects of the landslide dams starts to become clear. Rivers that might have had 15-20 cubic metres per second of flow during summer and be able to allow small takes of water for irrigation might not be able to supply that water any longer. Rivers that have landslide dams on them that are stable, may cease to flow or be reduced so much that any remaining water has to remain in the river just to enable it to perform its ecological and geomorphological functions. In the medium term it will also become clear which rivers will now start to rearrange their floodplains as the volumes of landslide debris that fell into the catchments now starts to get flushed out by floods. Heavy rainfall events causing slips and future earthquakes triggering fresh landslides will happen, potentially causing unforeseen aggradation and avulsion events to start.

The long term will see District and Regional Councils reviewing how they manage landslide dam hazards within their boundaries. They will be forced to examine the legal issues that go with land titles suddenly ending up in a river bed when, under the influence of large volumes of sediment being reworked through their systems, a river begins to avulse to a new course, possibly cutting across properties and livelihoods. Ultimately it will be councils and the central Government talking about how to fund remediation works.

The aftershock sequences might be quieter and the slow quakes in progress under New Zealand might be relieving the faults of accumulated stress. However the geomorphological changes that are coming in the next few years and even decades will affect communities and individuals alike.