Productivity essence of the Manuherikia debate

Falls Dam, at the head of the Manuherikia River. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON
Falls Dam, at the head of the Manuherikia River. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON
The chairman of the Central Otago Environmental Society doth protest too much, Gerrard Eckhoff writes.

The productive use of our natural capital including water from the Manuherikia River is being constantly diminished by decree.

So it is no surprise that New Zealand’s productive capacity can no longer afford the schools, hospitals, welfare, medicines — indeed most if not all social services we require. And that dear readers is what the debate over the Manuherikia River is actually about.

From 1996 to 2022 New Zealand’s productivity rose 1.3%, v Australia at 1.9%. As a country we have one of the worst productivity rates of any of the developed economies and this needs serious long-term commitment and investment to turn it around.

The chairman of the Central Otago Environmental Society (COES) Mr Phil Murray states in his recent article (ODT 6.11.23) that we need to be wary of the use of words — balance and storage.

That advice is simply an absurdity. Balance is crucially used to determine the trade-offs needed in any civil society where petulance does not hold sway. Balance is in fact so essential when seeking to find lasting solutions to difficult problems where there are no simple answers and good will is lost to self-interest. The art of balancing all aspects of a debate is therefore a vital concept in good decision making.

COES seem to revel in a perpetual state of unearned and unjustified concern for the state of our rivers. A recently acquired personal, but professional, lab test of the Manuherikia water at the Galloway Bridge showed excellent quality and quantity of the water on its way to the ocean.

I would be among the first to agree that mid-summer brings its challenges but none so great that cannot be resolved by reason and investment. If, however Mr Murray is trying to build a legless argument in support of a dryland Central Otago — then he should say so.

We are blessed with snowmelts well into summer which feed our river systems and provide stored energy for us all.

Most of our storage dams for irrigation were sold by the government in 1989 for a peppercorn as the government knew they were all getting past their use-by date. That liability remains.

It would seem reasonable however that good water quality and quantity for about 10 out of 12 months of the year within the Manuherikia River would seem a reasonable outcome to most people. Most understand trade-offs are part of a wider ecological function of human beings as well as rivers in Central Otago.

Does untreated sewage also flow into our rivers? Do we not create huge rubbish dumps? It would seem however that this Manuherikia river replenishes itself during the winter and spring flushes.

Despite didymo and lake snow being two of the worst organisms found in our water bodies, the COES narrative chooses to ignore that reality. Fish & Game can take a bow for that unwanted delivery and not a dairy cow in sight.

Comment is made that rather than store water we would be better off if the water was left in the river.

Really? When was that economic and social work done and reviewed. What exactly are these greater benefits to the community Mr Murray speaks of, as the community he represents is tiny.

The phrase "a dire state of ecological decline" is used by COES and others as though our land and rivers in Otago are on the point of collapse due to extractive water use. Completely untrue.

New Zealand has developed resilient systems of land and water management which are possibly the envy of the world yet there are always improvements that can and are made through investment. The imperfect systems here in New Zealand are best exemplified by Auckland’s failure to better manage sewage and wastewater which is still flowing into the coastal waters of that region. The Manawatu river has more permits to discharge waste into that river than possibly the total of all the South Island has.

We do tend to live in an imperfect world, yet indicators also show that the world is greening due to CO2 which of course is not part of the environmental narrative. Tests show that CO2 can lift food yields by 30% to 40% but again the environmental lobby tend to avoid good news like the plague.

Readers of these opinion pages will note that COES or Mr Murray’s recent offering didn’t bother to mention a particularly trifling aspect of water use — that of food production.

Not so much as a syllable from him offering even token gratitude for the meat, milk, cheese and butter that COES members no doubt devour daily.

The environmental movement tends to come from an age when most things they desired were accessible. On rare occasions they are told no. That can result in a Greta Thunberg-like dance on the world stage.

Later on, as they grow older but not necessarily wiser, the language they use remains .

"A dire state of ecological collapse" Mr Murray? The (man) doth protest too much methinks.

— Gerrard Eckhoff is a retired Central Otago farmer, and a former Otago regional councillor and Act New Zealand MP.