Collective helping the environment

Mid Canterbury Catchment Collective co-ordinator Angela Cushnie says communities come up with...
Mid Canterbury Catchment Collective co-ordinator Angela Cushnie says communities come up with quick solutions to local environmental problems because of their generational knowledge. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
A Mid Canterbury collective of mainly farmer-led catchment groups has found bringing the community together to improve local environments is paying off.

The Mid Canterbury Catchment Collective has been helping nine catchment groups carry out environmental projects on the land and water. Two of them were rural-urban groups.

They were focused on diverse issues such as flooding, water quality, biodiversity and managing nitrates and other nutrients.

Some groups only had a handful of members and others were larger, but the common ground was local people carrying out catchment work.

The collective was formed in 2022 initially with zone committee seed money and then $950,000 over three years from the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) Essential Freshwater Fund.

Solutions are shared among the groups, with an agreement that "one size doesn’t fit all" and different tools are needed for catchments facing localised challenges.

Co-ordinator Angela Cushnie said communities were quick to come up with practical solutions to problems as they had a lot of generational knowledge among them.

"It is kind of flipping how the model has been for a very long time from top-down to being much more bottom-up focused."

She said good progress had been made in forming partnerships with farming, community and environmental groups, businesses and regulators.

A focus on local areas had talks widening to cover water, biodiversity, people, soil and nutrient management to break down silo approaches, she said.

"Our purpose is to co-ordinate an integrated catchment by catchment approach to inter-generational land and water stewardship between the Rakaia and Rangitata rivers, from mountains to sea.

"We are really focused on the co-ordination piece because it’s important we have got a cohesive district-wide approach."

Long term improvement was the goal, she said.

"It’s taken 160-odd years of modification to arrive where we are today so going forward we must identify what the challenges and opportunities are and then look forward to the outcomes we want to achieve, and we are doing that catchment by catchment."

The nine catchment groups were spread from the backcountry to the coast, the collective worked closely with irrigation schemes where they are not represented.

Mrs Cushnie said the collective was based on a lot of previous water management, water zone committee and landcare group work.

The MPI funding was to improve freshwater by raising skills and delivering on-ground action to improve land use and resilient catchments, and then monitor progress and share outcomes, she said.

A big part of this was bringing ideas, action and science together to improve the environmental footprint and support catchment groups and community wellbeing, she said.

"The wellbeing component is really important because we found people were getting quite fatigued through lots of changes in regulation, including the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management."

Biodiversity work includes riparian, roadside and woodland plantings, pest control and protecting existing areas such as native bush in the foothills.

More research is going into soil management to understand the pathway of nitrates and other nutrients.

Existing resources or data from local councils or industry-good organisations was going into an information "library" to be shared among catchment members.

The collective had four nitrate testers which were giving it a better idea of problem areas, and solutions.

Each group got a facilitator to help manage projects and provide administration support to ease the burden on volunteers.

Mrs Cushnie said they were trying to dial down the information overload going out to farmers, such as winter grazing rules, and break it down for them to remove some of the confusion.

She said the emphasis was on localised action with a team approach among groups so they could share information such as finding the source of water quality issues within a catchment.

"From the top to the bottom initially what they’re trying to find out is where is the problem is coming from, because we all agree there is a problem.

"A little bit of finger-pointing could be one of the challenges we face at the start, but you pretty quickly realise everybody is willing to be part of the solution.

"Then they all pull on the same rugby jersey and work on a plan."

She said the collective was happy for others to help shape freshwater and other policy and regulations, and wanted to stick to "its lane" of community action on the ground.

Catchments could, however, become a useful communication tool, she said.

"We could be part of these complex high-level discussions and, while it’s not up to us, if we could have a voice around the table that would be quite helpful."

MPI funding ends late next year and the group was working to find alternative funding models.

Mrs Cushnie said the seed money had been crucial to set the collective up and it wanted to keep the momentum going.