Manuherikia Irrigation

The Manuherikia Irrigation Strategy – an Alternative View


This brief commentary is intended to draw your attention to wider contextual issues and concerns regarding the proposed initiative to secure water for irrigation purposes in Central Otago. The draft Social Impact Report claims that a major water scheme would, create jobs, increase household income, provide population growth, and promote investment”, but fails to acknowledge that like any  commercial venture, these outcomes are dependent on assumptions subject to external factors beyond our control.

 Likewise the report notes other consequences, including land use intensification, changes of farm ownership, social change and loss of community cohesion, inferring that such changes are inevitable but necessary, in the interest of the District’s economic development.

 The report subscribes to the prevailing economic model – that economic security relies on ceaseless expansion and that the current economic crisis is but a temporary impediment which will be removed by our continuing to expand and consume resources. There is however, an increasing awareness (note comments by entrepreneur Dick Smith last week) that ‘growth’ is no longer economic and that its continued pursuit will only incur unsustainable debt, social destabilization, more pollution and accelerate the loss of biodiversity.

 The proposition that the finite resources of the planet cannot accommodate either the promise or the theory of infinite growth, leads inevitably to replacing the current economic model with a new reality. Adaptation to a new order is likely to be painful and involve considerable decentralization, requiring communities to provide for their own sustenance, security, education, financial systems and self-governance.Not everyone will concede this alternative reality but at the very least, prudence dictates that any major development proposal such as that to secure water for irrigation in Central Otago, must be evaluated against all possibilities.

 To some degree, the wider context has been captured by the CODC’s Long Term Plan (LTP) which draws on various studies and community consultative processes, including the Central Prospects study (2002), the Rural Study (2006) and various individual community plans. All of these documents convey the strong sense of place and the deep feelings that people have for the Central Otago environment, culture and landscape:The uniqueness of the landscapes, the openness, the big country feel, and the mix of historic, pastoral, and horticultural heritage were all seen as features worth preserving.” (Rural Study Final Report 2006)

 The LTP is intended to reflect what it is that Central Otago residents value about the District and their vision for the future. The Plan emphasises the need for sustainable management of the District’s resources and specifically notes the capture, storage and wise use of water as being fundamental to its future. It follows then that any plan to secure water for irrigation is only likely to be realised if it is widely viewed as accommodating all of the community’s needs,  and contributing to the overall well-being by furthering the district vision.

 It is worth noting too, that the LTP considers Council to have an important, albeit indirect role “to   facilitate the ‘economic development’ of the District, by way of “providing a policy framework, infrastructure and perhaps some development funding(CODC LTP 2012 -22). It might be sensibly assumed that such facilitation and contribution is more likely to be forthcoming for a water supply scheme perceived as providing widespread community benefits rather than one designed for the benefit of irrigators and power generation companies.

 It might do so by ensuring that the scheme also secures water for domestic purposes (household supply, fire fighting, stock water and individual micro-hydro schemes). Environmental enhancement measures by the supply scheme restoring minimum flow levels in local streams and creeks, by irrigators adopting management measures to preserve and enhance water quality and farmers  acknowledging their community obligations by retiring suitable areas for the establishment of new wetlands, eel habitats and using scheme water for  the regeneration of native flora.

 In 2006, the Central Otago Rural Study focussed on whether it was desirable that farm land be broken up for residential subdivisions and life style blocks; were those same discussions to take place now, six years later, it is highly likely that the focus would be on land use intensification issues and whether controls might be necessary to maintain the character and values of Central Otago.That discussion has yet to take place so it is wrong to assume that all irrigators, let alone the wider community will necessarily consider the outcomes forecast by the Social Impact Report, as being desirable or inevitable. Indeed, it can be assumed that there will be considerable resistance to any proposal that threatens the prevailing notion of Central Otago as a “World of Difference”.

 The wider Central Otago community is likely to support a proposal which establishes a baseline objective that secures the District’s future water supply by way of “capture, storage and wise use”.  Accordingly, it may be advisable to recast the proposal as a ‘reliable storage and supply scheme’ in which the community has some say regarding the allocation of water.  In doing so, the scheme’s architects must not overlook that the capture and storage of water may of itself, result in unacceptable environmental damage.  Finally, consideration should also be given to the notion of minimising irrigation requirements by pursuing robust on-farm solutions which will allow farmers to sustain the traditional dry country, low input /impact agricultural model perhaps better suited to the alternative economic scenario presented above.

Graye Shattky                                                                                                 Sep 2012

St Bathans


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