Rural water use - beyond irrigation

Firefighters and a helicopter work on hot sports at the Te Papanui Conservation Park fire earlier this month. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Firefighters and a helicopter work on hot sports at the Te Papanui Conservation Park fire earlier this month. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Improved water storage is the key to addressing New Zealand’s fire risk, writes Gerrard Eckhoff.

If ever there are lessons to be learnt from the misfortune of others, it is brought to us in stark reality through the devastation of fire being reaped upon the rural people of NSW and Queensland.

Fire is of course a natural and annual occurrence in much of Australia. The rains will come. Regeneration will occur as that cycle of drought, flood and fire continues as it always has, but what of New Zealand and our risk of devastation through fire?

The South Island, east of the main divide is yet to experience a major fire, yet ways to lesson risk are strangely ignored by Government. Water storage and the subsequent greening of New Zealand's dry areas has helped us all mitigate risk through the irrigation of the valley floors.

Those of us who have passed the allotted three score and ten years on this earth will recall North Otago being in drought for a decade, which in turn gave rise to the Waitaki River being used to turn the area from a parched barren landscape into the productive, secure and vital contributor to NZ's wellbeing it now is.

So too has Canterbury changed from being a windswept arid plain where the nor'west wind would blow the milk out of your tea. That region is now something of a food bowl thanks to water and water storage.

However, the wider social benefits that water storage brings are not well understood. After the recent Port Hills fires in 2017 where 2075ha was burnt, insurance companies put a temporary freeze on new policies.

Eleven homes were destroyed along with some outbuildings. A pilot was killed. Those homes which escaped the fire had their green curtilage (lawn) areas to thank. In other words the availability and use of water for domestic aesthetic use saved many homes. Irrigation of the valley floors stops the spread of fire to the foothills and into the fuel dumps we now call conservation areas.

Not so very long ago much of the tussock country in the South Island was grazed and in private hands under a pastoral lease where recreational access was usually controlled.

No longer. The vast tussock grasslands under Doc stewardship are now ungrazed with public access guaranteed even in times of extreme fire risk. The dead vegetation becomes a tinder box.

The Papanui Conservation Park fire is a very recent case in point where an ''unknown'' cause set alight 5000ha on the Lammerlaw Range.

The boiling of the billy for a cup of tea may now be replaced by a gas cooker, yet the threat remains and will only increase as more of the public choose to enjoy a day or two of tramping in these remote areas, as the Papanui fire vividly illustrates. While NZ's public policy seeks to entice tourists into our more remote areas of undeniable natural beauty, one careless act can, and probably will, start a fire that will devastate the very values most seek to protect.

Whatever the causes of that fire, availability of water for firefighting, through storage, is essential. Public policy however has decreed that no more water storage dams for irrigation should be built even as the fire threat is increasing as tourism explodes as rapidly as wilding trees into more remote areas. Thanks to vested interests who wish to retain those areas of NZ still in their dry ''natural'' state, a significant fire threat remains constant.

Those in Wellington fail to understand that storage of snow melt is not just about more water for land to run more dairy cows. It is all about opportunity for all manner of human activity that requires fresh water for security of enterprise within cities as well as to smalltown NZ.

Storage of water often allows for the renewable generation of electricity, yet it is the ''multiplier effect'' of water which offers security for all.

It is unfortunate Irrigation NZ has yet to understand that it needs to change its name to something like Water Storage NZ, where the wider social benefits from storage such as recreational boating, angling and swimming are available to all. It is the water available for rural golf, bowling and cricket clubs that remains the essential fabric of our rural communities.

Advocates for the smart use of the 3% of NZ's fresh water that would have otherwise run to the sea often draw attention to the significant contribution water storage makes to our gross domestic product (GDP).

The agricultural GDP contribution to NZ economy from irrigation is around 15% or $2 billion. It, however, is not just about cows and crops, but also whether or not our country can find alternative ways to fund our schools and hospitals along with the prime minister's desire to eliminate child poverty.

Water storage is the essential element in achieving not just sustainability but enhancement of genuine social security.

-Gerrard Eckhoff is a retired Central Otago farmer and former Otago regional councillor and Act MP.

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