Canterbury’s Water Story is Not a Happy one

by Dr Peter Trolove
President NZ Federation Freshwater Anglers

The following comments are the distillation of NZ media articles, relevant books and peer reviewed publications from New Zealand and North America, meeting attendances, attendance at Ecan water allocation hearings, searches of Ecan’s website and documents library, personal communication with Ecan councillors and staff, personal communication with recognised freshwater advocates such as Drs Mike Joy, Russell Death and Alison Dewes, and with successful local anglers.
I have local knowledge due to growing up on and briefly owning a border-dyked irrigated farm near Ashburton while working as senior vet at the local vet club. I have practiced as a large animal vet for 47 years, and have spent over 60 years fishing in the North Canterbury and Central South Island Fish and Game regions. I have assisted the Ashburton Acclimatization Society with fish salvage operations in Mid Canterbury and spent a year as a West Coast F&G regional councillor. While my comments are my own they are shaped by the sources mentioned above.
Over the past three years I have been supported by like-minded angler advocates on the executive of the New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers (NZFFA). 
Finally I would like to thank Pub Charities NZ for funding NZFFA’s purchase of a state of the art optical sensor for measuring the level of nitrate pollution in local Canterbury waters.
Dr Mike Joy

The issue – is irrigation the simple solution to Canterbury’s summer droughts?
Water has always been the limiting ingredient for the development of the Canterbury Plains.
In lowland areas swamps had to be drained in order to farm the elite soils associated with the once water logged land.
Further inland the development of hundreds of kilometres of stock water races in the 1880s enabled subdivision of the arid inland plains.
Road and rail bridges across the region’s large braided rivers such as the Rakaia and Rangitata Rivers provided ease of access unavailable to early run holders.
Summer droughts are normal and expected. Farmers farmed to the conditions growing rapidly established crops such as green feed oats or rape to finish lambs for the Christmas Smithfield markets. Once their lambs were weaned, mixed age ewes needed minimal supplements to survive until autumn rains produced a flush of feed for mating. The dry climate suited both sheep and arable farming and the region became the grain basket for New Zealand.
Irrigation was seen by governments of all political hues as an infrastructural golden goose to provide work to solve unemployment and to make land more productive in times of economic hardship. 
The catalyst for Mid Canterbury’s Rangitata Diversion Race (RDR) was the depression of the 1930s. Minister of Public Works, Bob Semple, compulsorily acquired land to complete first the Ashburton-Lyndhurst scheme of 13,300 ha in 1945, followed by the Mayfield-Hinds scheme of 35,400 ha in 1948, and finally the Valetta-Tinwald scheme covering 5,400 ha in 1957.
Uptake of the scheme was slowed by ill-will generated by the compulsory nature of the scheme but acceptance quickly grew when productivity and opportunities for diversification became evident.
In the 1960s the Winchmore Irrigation Research farm was achieving dairy production levels on a once dry part of the Canterbury Plains that could not be matched by Waikato dairy farms.
Due to the costs of development, even with cheap water and the higher productivity, net farm profitability was not much different to traditional dry land farming. The appeal of irrigation lay in security against very dry seasons.
Farm subsidies such as the Supplementary Minimum Price (SMP) for sheep farming accelerated irrigation development in the 1970s.
In the 1980s the first wave of conversions to large scale irrigated dairy farming had begun. Irrigated dairy farming required far greater amounts of water than the RDR was designed to deliver and the value of newly privatised irrigation shares skyrocketed. New capital generated by the unregulated share market of the mid 1980s combined with a collapse in farm income following the abrupt withdrawal of farm subsidies created a new era of corporate farming following the forced sale of family owned farms. 
By the 1980s, with the expansion of irrigation came the realization that there were environmental consequences;
Anglers watched as thousands of salmon smolt were lost to irrigation races every year. One estimate that 180,000 salmon smolt were lost annually seems conservative given the hundreds of juvenile salmon that stranded on my parent’s farm.
In 1982 the Ministry of Works (MOW) were recording increased amounts of nitrate in the groundwater with the highest levels leaching from border dyke/flood irrigation zones, followed by spray irrigation and then dryland farming.
In 1986 a report from the MOW commissioned by the Canterbury Regional Council (CRC/Ecan) predicted rural residents between the towns of Ashburton and Rakaia would soon be looking at having to find alternative sources of drinking water due to contaminated wells.
The Rakaia River NWCO (1988)
The Central Plains Water enhancement (CPW) and Barrhill Chertsey Irrigation (BCI) schemes which were completed between 2012 and 2018 were originally conceived as a “think big” project of the Muldoon era (1978 to 1984).
Realizing that water abstraction was killing Canterbury’s iconic braided rivers from “death by a thousand cuts”, and alarmed at the reduction in habitat and water quality across the region, the Ashburton and North Canterbury acclimatization societies were successful in gaining and retaining New Zealand’s second water conservation order for the Rakaia River, the National Water Conservation Order Rakaia River (1988), (RWCO), despite appeals to the New Zealand courts by the farming lobby.
Muldoon’s Minister of Energy, Bill Birch, was so incensed he set about the disestablishment of acclimatization societies which was completed in 1990 by Labour’s Geoffrey Palmer through an amendment to the Conservation Act.
Rakaia River

The Environment Canterbury Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management Act 2010 (Ecan Act)
The 2007/8 global recession was the stimulus for the creation of the Ecan Act as the Key government and its MAF advisors sought ways to double New Zealand’s GDP through intensive farming.
Muldoon’s thwarted CPW irrigation enhancement scheme was dusted off and in 2009 a think tank of relevant National Party cabinet ministers and MAF advisors sought ways to unlock Canterbury’s braided rivers in order to abstract the necessary water. [The meeting notes are set out in Ministerial briefing papers obtained by Chris Todd of Forest & Bird through an OIA request.]
The Christchurch earthquakes and a submission by the pro-irrigation Canterbury Mayoral Forum gave John Key the excuse to pass the Ecan Act under urgency. This act retrospectively removed the protections afforded by Canterbury’s WCOs, removed Cantabrian’s access to the Environment Court, allowed the RWCO to be amended at an Ecan irrigation hearing that could only be appealed to the High Court on points of law. Canterbury ratepayers were disenfranchised by having their elected regional councillors replaced by government appointed commissioners whose role was to facilitate the Key Government’s irrigation ambitions.  In a single piece of targeted legislation Key had removed the regulations and regulators established to protect Canterbury’s freshwater.
The Act took one step further to ensure the planned irrigation development would proceed by removing S. 9 of the RMA 1991 giving the Canterbury Mayoral Forum’s non-statutory Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) legal primacy over the RMA.
The CWMS subverted the principles of “community consultant” promoted by Ecan’s CEO of 7 years. Dr Bryan Jenkins who held overseas post graduate qualifications in Environmental Planning from Stanford University was the architect of the original version of the CWMS.
Bryan Jenkins was soon side lined when Margaret Bazley, chair of the appointed Ecan commissioners, endowed a joint chair of freshwater management between Canterbury and Lincoln Universities and appointed Jenkins as its head. He later moved to Australia.  
Both Dr Phillip Joseph, head of constitutional law at Canterbury University, and Austin Forbes QC, chair of the rule of law committee of the New Zealand Law Society, recorded their outrage at the enactment of the “constitutionally repugnant” Ecan Act with its “Henry the VIII (retrospective) clauses”.

With its newly acquired legal status the CWMS was created as a “living document” to be amended as needed to legitimize Ecan’s freshwater water management.
The CWMS contracted Aqualinc to scope all the potential water that could be taken from the region’s rivers and aquifers. This was ranked according to abstraction cost.
The CWMS put simply was to scope every potential water source in Canterbury, evaluate the most cost effective means of harvesting the water, and apply the water efficiently in order to irrigate the maximum area.
Consideration for environmental consequences was limited to falsely claim the CWMS would take “alpine” water in order to restore the environment and recharge depleted aquifers
The CWMS and the 10 Canterbury Water Zone committees it created have been instrumental in creating the unsolvable freshwater pollution crisis we face in 2021.

The Lake Coleridge Project (LCP)
When CPW were unsuccessful in gaining the consents needed to build a 2 km long, 55 m high, storage dam in the Waianiwaniwa Valley they came up with a revised plan to divert water from the Rakaia and Waimakariri Rivers to supply the proposed 60,000 ha irrigation scheme.
The LCP was a cleverly conceived deception created to obtain up to 70 m3/sec from the flows protected by the Rakaia River WCO.
The essence of the deception lay in creating the definition of “stored water”. 
By the stroke of a pen and without the cost of building a single storage structure, water that had been flowing through the Coleridge HEPS and returned to the natural river flows since the power scheme was commissioned in November 1914, miraculously became “stored water” if it was harvested in times of peak flow under a regime proscribed in the applicants proposed amendment to the RWCO. This stored water would then be considered separate from the abstraction constraints proscribed in the original conservation order.
Trustpower would thus be enabled to sell the “stored water” to the CPW enhancement scheme during times when low flow restrictions applied. The corporate could of course still use this water to generate electricity. 
The case was promoted as using “Alpine water” that purported to be somehow separate from the catchment from which it derived. (Corporate lawyers are well paid for their interpretation of reality).

The 2012 Lake Coleridge Project Hearing
By the time the LCP Hearing was convened previous Ecan hearings had already allocated 17 m3/second to the BCI scheme and 40 m3/second to CPW. These water allocations had no certainty of supply for as long as they were subject to the conditions of the existing RWCO (1988).
The BCI scheme had by this time raised the necessary capital and was well into constructing the reticulation system necessary to deliver water to the farms supplied by the BCI scheme.
Existing consent holders of Rakaia River water were concerned that the LCP might affect their water security and initially were against the project until they gained priority for their allocation.
The Ecan Act, CWMS, government appointed Ecan commissioners, and Trustpower collectively made the necessary consents and amendment to the RWCO a certainty.
Neither DOC nor North Canterbury F&G chose to defend the RWCO. F&G ended up supporting Trustpower’s application in exchange for the right use a stream near the Coleridge HEPS out flow for a hatchery.
For months the local papers ran advertorials citing the economic benefits to the region and claiming the LCP would simply be taking surplus water that is wasted in times of floods.
The independent hearing commissioners included a prominent environment lawyer and acting High Court judge as chair, a hydrologist, and a Maori with expertise as an independent commissioner.
Because the Hearing outcome was virtually pre-determined, Trustpower simply had the task of hiring a set of expert witnesses prepared to swear under oath that in their expert opinion the environmental effects of the LCP would be “minor or less than minor”.
As a submitter against the scheme and with some understanding of the limitations of habitat modelling and many years fishing the Rakaia River mouth it was evident that the biological evidence of Trustpower’s expert witnesses was wanting.
In law the evidence of “expert witnesses” trumps the evidence of members of the public no matter how well researched and valid their evidence might be. This is why the Ecan Act removed access to the Environment Court. 
The applicant’s amendment to the RWCO was approved by the independent commissioners, supported by a 108 page document to demonstrate how the independent commissioners had meticulously followed all the legal processes. The Hearing commissioners appeared less meticulous in evaluating the validity of the evidence presented by Trustpower’s hired witnesses; 
None of the experts visited the hapua or river mouth zone of the Rakaia River where 90% of the fishery exists. The data used to calculate the impact of the LCP on the habitat of the various river inhabitants was cut and pasted from studies going back 30 years. Mistakes were made in transcribing this old flow data. The recent flow data used for the modelling was taken from the NIWA or Ecan recording site many kilometres from the measured transects. Up to 40% of the rivers flows can be lost to groundwater between the recording site and the coast. Despite this, modelled changes in “average habitat” together with changes in habitat for individual species was presented with an apparent precision of 0.1%. (No confidence intervals or discussion regarding the repeatability of the results was presented). Finally this expert stated that if habitat (space in the river) was not a limiting factor then the results would be meaningless. As the modelling was conducted in the least productive reaches of the Rakaia River the results would indeed have been meaningless.
Ecan commissioner David Caygill, demonstrated that any pretence that Ecan was independent from the Hearing was false. Caygill made a submission of his own in favour of the LCP. The rules simply did not apply.
By failing to allow the evidence to be fairly tested in the Environment Court the fate of this complex and poorly understood iconic braided river was determined by legal process alone.
Since the Hearing and the completion of Stage II of the CPW irrigation scheme the consequences of ignoring environmental reality due to taking a further 70 m3/second from the Rakaia River flows have become all too apparent;
The collapse of the Rakaia River’s protected native and recreational fisheries including the probability that an internationally Red Listed local species of smelt will become extinct
The braid beds have become invaded by weeds
Diminished jet boating opportunities (part of the original WCO protections)
Agricultural encroachment of the riparian margins of the Rakaia River
River bed, land vested with DOC under the Conservation Act 1947, and SDC land given to the Chinese owners of Synlait farms by the OIO
Decline in water quality – sediment and temperatures
By far the biggest environmental disaster has been the degradation of the Selwyn Water Zone’s unconfined aquifer and the lowland streams that flow from this aquifer due to pollution resulting from the out of river use of the abstracted water 
[Deposed elected Ecan councillor Eugenie Sage, (2007 -2010) stated in her submission that it would be irresponsible and reckless to proceed with the CPW irrigation scheme until the means and regulations to manage the inevitable nitrate leaching from the out of river use of this water were in place. The independent Hearing commissioners decided that this issue would be resolved when the CPW irrigators sought consents to use the allocated water.]
Lake Coleridge

Environment Canterbury 2010 until November 2019
With no accountability to Canterbury ratepayers, the Government appointed Ecan commissioners acted as “princes of today” governing the Canterbury Regional Council with the primary purpose of growing the region’s economy through delivering the massive irrigation development required by the Key government.
From 2010 until 2016 the entire Ecan council was composed of John Key’s “temporary” appointees.
Community protests saw a mix of appointed and elected councillors from 2016 to 2019, until Ecan returned to full democracy in November 2019.

The scale and pace of the irrigation development was staggering;
  • By 2012 permissive consenting by Ecan had seen 5 billion m3 of the region’s water allocated for irrigation abstraction. (400,000 Olympic sized swimming pools or 5 cubic kilometres of water)
  • By 2012 around 420,000 ha of Canterbury was covered by irrigation schemes.  The latest Statistics NZ figure shows the irrigated land in Canterbury now exceeds 500,000 ha.
  • Stage I of CPW was completed by 2014 and Stage II became operational in October 2018.
  • 58,000 ha of new irrigation were consented in North Canterbury and a similar area consented in South Canterbury, (including the Mckenzie country).
The irrigation development occurred with indecent haste in a race to complete as much as possible before the country woke up to the environmental consequences.
Initially environmental protections were ignored; consents were left to be “self-monitored” by the consent holder. Wells were not metered so the water use could not be managed. There were no restraints on land use. Water quality and quantity suffered as a result as 70% of the region’s coarse porous vulnerable (leaky) soils became a platform for intensive industrial irrigated dairy farms.
Ecan encouraged agricultural encroachment of riparian margins and consented private river works which were loosely monitored if at all. Tens of thousands of hectares of public land was simply taken over by adjacent farmers.
The consequences of this ill-advised policy cost Ecan the control of river margins with land needed for flood protection work once vested with Ecan, DOC, and LINZ “lost” from Ecan control. Through a new “owner” successfully defending his rights in the New Zealand courts a narrow definition of riparian margins has been decided by old case law from the late 1800s and early 1900s, an era when the dynamic nature of braided rivers was poorly understood. ECan is now faced with appealing this decision in order to manage the region’s rivers.
The news is not all bad. Despite Canterbury having the most polluted water of any region in New Zealand, the highest number of cases of waterborne disease (campylobacter), toxic algae and E. coli present in the residual flows of its lowland streams, and world class levels of colorectal cancer, the region has seen its economy grow to $1.5 billion. New wealth has been created for the benefit of corporate farms, (many with significant overseas ownership), irrigation companies, water traders, contractors & civil engineers who provide the irrigation infrastructure, fertilizer companies, bankers, lawyers, and council staff. We have even helped the displaced and dispossessed of the world by creating low paid jobs for migrant dairy farm workers, (comprising 70% of the workforce on the regions dairy farms). 50% of the vets employed by large corporate vet practices are migrants working alongside farm technicians to provide the low cost staff needed to enhance practice profits.
Anglers are a bit miffed as their rights have been totally ignored and their fisheries lost.

Community vs Corporates  – the demise of democracy

In mid-2014 the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) commissioned the Cawthron Institute to report on the collaborative deliberations of the Selwyn Water Zone and perceptions of the legitimacy of this cornerstone of the CWMS.
The report found the collaborative planning model had broken the (political) stalemate in Canterbury regarding the use of the region’s water resources. The report further found that there were ample reasons for scepticism about the Selwyn-Waihora zone committee process and no shortage of grounds to challenge the legitimacy of the outcomes.
In other words a collaborate planning model founded on disenfranchising a region’s ratepayers and creating water zone committees stacked with water users with oversight provided by a government controlled regional council has issues of legitimacy. This report commissioned by the National Government massively understated the situation. 
This is a prime example of agency capture of an “independent study” resulting in the dilution of its critically important finding. Both the MBIE and Cawthron Institute lose credibility with this one. 

Prior to the local government elections of 2016 the Ministry for the Environment and the Department of Internal Affairs sought feedback on a proposed mixed-model of Government appointed and elected councillors to run Ecan.
Unsurprisingly Trustpower, the Canterbury district councils, irrigation companies, and farming leaders produced lengthy submissions enthusiastically supporting the proposal.
Submissions strongly against the proposal came from all of New Zealand’s regional councils apart from Ecan.
A few academics contributed their views while disenfranchised Cantabrian’s did not bother participating.
A similar story occurred prior to the 2019 Ecan elections with Ecan shifting the goal posts:

A bit of good old fashioned gerrymandering by Canterbury’s privileged inner circle determined to keep the peasants at bay.
It is apparent that since Roger Douglas re-engineered the New Zealand public sector to be run as a corporate, controlled by treasury, the will of the people has been subverted by corporate self-interest. With wealth and the means to professionally lobby Ministers to plunder the nation’s resources, the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider.

Canterbury’s water 2021
Last Sunday 24th January I stood to one side as a TV crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Foreign Correspondent documentary program filmed Dr Mike Joy and Ecan councillor Lan Pham discussing Canterbury’s water on the banks of the degraded Selwyn River.
I had hoped to be part of the documentary and had carefully assembled my thoughts over several days and nights prior to this event.
Unfortunately the reporter had planned her story while in COVID isolation and I discovered I was only there to provide the NZFFA’s optical sensor and the use of my boat. 
While trying to find some shade during a tiring day I heard smatterings of Mike Joy’s standard pitch and that the justification for Ecan not addressing the growing water pollution being put down to “an unwillingness to affect people’s standard of living”.
Mike made his case about high nitrate levels and their association with colorectal cancer and how a fearful rural community is beginning to buy its drinking water in plastic bottles from Coca Cola filled with water taken free from a spring near Patararu!
For the record the nitrate levels at Chamberlain’s Ford was 9.45 mg/L NO3-N (The August 2020 NPS FM “bottom line”, Level D, is 2.4 mg/L). A “wow” result for that has been repeated over the past 6 months of testing.
Macrophtyes (aquatic plants) growing in the shingle margins reach over 2 meters in height the beneficiaries of “fertigation” from this nutrient pollution.
The arrow on Ecan’s toxic algae sign was pointing to the red section.
The popular camping grounds at Chamberlain’s Ford were largely deserted apart from a few travellers with camper vans. No one was near the water.
Selwyn River today

My unwanted thoughts;
  • Ecan should lose the promotional prefix “environment” Canterbury until they achieve some meaningful environmental restoration of our freshwater ecosystems
  • The Selwyn River nitrate levels have increased by over 50% since Stage II of CPW was completed in 2018, (the Ecan five year average is 5.9 mg/L).
  • For nearly a decade Cantabrian’s have had a second class democracy and our rivers have had second class WCOs
  • The regions lowland rivers and streams contain nitrate levels that are toxic to aquatic environments
  • The CWMS and its water zone committees have no (social) legitimacy and are not fit for purpose
  • Ecan has advice that Te Waihora can cope with 800 tons of nitrate from surface water inflows annually. The CWMS/Selwyn Te Waihora Water Zone allows 3200 tons to enter the lake. I gather this is set to rise to 6400 tons.
  • The CWMS/Selwyn water zone emphasises economic growth. Its environmental concern regarding nitrate focuses solely on human health. A target of 8.5 mg/L NO3-N for the region’s aquifers has been set in consideration of the NZ MAV of 11.3 mg/L. This is the threshold where blue baby deaths will occur.
  • Since 2013 the Selwyn Water Zone has been developing farm environment zone implementation plans (ZIPs) based on Good Management Practice and the OVERSEER model. These plans focus on managing nitrate leaching through reducing the use of nitrogen fertilizers and other actions unlikely to impact on farm values. Presently the MfE has an independent review panel assessing whether OVERSEER is fit for purpose.
  • OVERSEER has never been tested on Canterbury’s light porous (“leaky”) soils where 70% of the region’s 1.2 million cows are farmed.
  • The Selwyn Water Zone has never monitored the effectiveness of the ZIPs
  • The 70 m3/ second flow of water taken from the Rakaia River to irrigate CPW has not mitigated the over allocation of the Central Plains aquifer. The Selwyn River remains very low and nearby drains are reduced to a trickle or have simply dried up.
  • Ecan has allowed farmers to shift their irrigation consents from streams and drains to deep wells as the surface supplies become unreliable.
  • NZFFA well tests for a modest number of South Springston residents found three owners with high results had cancer.
  • Most of the streams and drains are landscaped and fenced. Nitrate levels have not dropped.
  • Ecan has been permissive with issuing water consents, does limited compliance monitoring and has achieved almost no prosecutions.
  • The Selwyn River together with the Ashley and Rangitata Rivers now test positive for the very dangerous E. Coli O157 strains for several months of the year.
That is only the harm wrought to the region’s aquifers and aquifer fed rivers and streams.
The consequences of excessive abstraction of water from Canterbury’s iconic braided rivers are another emerging tale of woe. Ecan is only now beginning to appreciate the catchment wide connectivity and complexity  of these ecosystems.

Conclusion – Canterbury’s water story is an unhappy one
New Zealand’s “clean green” story is well and truly busted.
Our mismanagement of the Selwyn’s District’s once envied freshwater has reached the attention of International documentary makers.
A truly tragic outcome brought about by short term policies focused solely on growing an economy with utter disregard for the environmental consequences.
We have lost trust in our local and central government. We have lost much of our democracy.
We have let a small bunch of dictators knowingly pollute our birth right for 30 pieces of silver.
Presently Ecan has no means of restoring our water quality, quantity or aquatic ecosystems.
Canterbury’s water story is a very unhappy one.

Dr Peter Trolove – “New Zealand’s “clean green” story is well and truly busted.”

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