Editorial: Irrigation a high priority

01:26, Feb 18 2013

A hearing this week will decide whether a proposed irrigation scheme in the upper Waimakariri Basin should go ahead. The proposal helps illustrate how even a relatively small scheme, in an area which has been irrigated in the past, can lead to vexed and complicated discussions about water use.

The consent application by P&E Ltd proposes to draw water from the Cass River to irrigate 554 hectares on Grasmere Station for sheep and beef grazing for 35 years. The area is on either side of State Highway 73, the road to Arthurs Pass, and on property which was subject to an irrigation consent from 1973 to possibly as late as 2001. The applicants have specifically ruled out dairying. Despite a Green Party claim that the area is a "scenic corridor" with outstanding landscape values, the consent covers established farmland behind fences which run on both sides of the road.

P&E says the plan would change the landscape but not harm it, that irrigation is needed on a viable farm, and the quality of the water in nearby Lake Grasmere will be monitored to ensure it isn't badly affected.

On the face of it, that all sounds reasonable, but Environment Canterbury has received 56 submissions on the plan and 55 of them are opposed. Some are from environmental groups and concerned individuals; others are from big-hitters such as Ngai Tahu and the University of Canterbury. Opponents are concerned about the effects on Lake Grasmere (on which, it seems, hydrologists beg to differ), flows in the Cass River and the possibility of more polluting nutrients in the landscape. Some downstream irrigators are also unhappy. Many of the opponents want to give their views in person to the consents commissioner this week.

Before the earthquakes, water was possibly Cantabrians' main public concern, if the letters to the editor of this newspaper were any guide. The resource management battle for each new proposal, with strongly held views on both sides, frankly gets tedious as they grind on year-in, year-out. That's why ECan's Canterbury Water Management Strategy - which aims to establish a collaborative framework to work through the issues of sustainable water use - is so important. Dame Margaret Bazley, who chairs the ECan commissioners, has declared better water management to be ECan's highest priority.

It's complicated, however: The strategy has to take into account ecology, biodiversity, land use, water quality, recreation, efficient water use, urban waterways, enforcement, infrastructure and cultural issues, among other things. Through all this the tension will continue to exist between improving production yields - creating "prosperous communities", to coin an ECan phrase - and protecting the sometimes fragile environment.

The hearing of multiple opponents at the Lincoln Events Centre this week is not the only way to go. The public reaction to the Hurunui Water Project proposal in 2009 made it look as if that scheme would never get the go-ahead. Yet, by working under the collaborative water strategy, with goodwill and good research, proponents and opponents were able to negotiate. The revised scheme, due for a hearing next month, will cost $100 million more than its original proposal but its backers say that is the price they are prepared to pay for the project to be consented with community support.


The Press