Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Clear need for water use plan

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Rex Graham recently stepped down as chair of Hawke’s Bay Regional Council for health reasons. Although he is pleased with its achievements in recent years, there is more work to be done. Colin Williscroft reports.
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IT WAS water use that led to Rex Graham being involved with the regional council about seven and a half years ago, and it’s water use that he sees as the biggest challenge facing the region long-term.

Prior to being elected to the council, Graham spent his working life in the horticulture industry, beginning as a pruner and working his way up the ranks before winding back his fruit growing business when he was in his early 60s, with retirement in mind.

However, three leading growers from the Twyford area on the Heretaunga Plains had other ideas and asked if he would stand for the regional council.

Graham says growers were having problems around irrigation, which were not helped by them all having single water-use consents and being put on bands when it got dry, which led to overwatering.

“It was a classic case of the law doing the exact opposite of what it was intended to do, which is quite often the case,” Graham said.

Within two or three months of being elected, with council staff’s help, Twyford was put on a single “global” consent that all growers operate under.

Graham says not only is there now no overuse of water in the area, during a significant drought in the area in 2013, they only used 47% of their consented water.

He says farming and growing underpins the Hawke’s Bay economy and it frustrates him that some people don’t want to recognise that.

“Instead of going forward and maintaining a dynamic economy, which works in harmony with the environment, some people want to go back and take all the water off the growers,” he said.

“Not many growers want to misuse water. They are all pretty good and they are getting better.”

As regional council chair, Graham says he was always trying to push the economy forward but in harmony with the environment.

He says the area is internationally acknowledged as the most successful apple growing region in the world.

“When I was growing fruit, we were doing 3-3500 cartons per hectare, they are now doing 5000 cartons per hectare, using less water,” he said.

“That’s about 80-100 tonnes (per hectare). When you think the Chinese are getting 10t to the hectare, that’s how good these guys are.”

However, he says being the most intensive horticulture region in NZ brings its challenges, especially around chemical use.

“We’ve got to take superphosphate out of the economy. I know there’s a big resistance to that but we have to, because it leaches,” he said.

“Every paddock on the Heretaunga Plain has got a waterway through it. Every single one. 

“It’s either tile drained, which is a waterway, or it’s got a drain or a creek, or it’s got a river.

“So, every single one has got a waterway and if you put a huge amount of NPK on it will get into the waterways no doubt about it.

“Minimal use and sensible use of fertiliser has got to be a big factor (in the future).”

He is optimistic that although there have been mistakes made in the past, lessons have been learnt.

“We’ve ruthlessly used resources without consideration for the consequences. And that’s got to end,” he said.

“But you don’t want to go too far to the left either. You don’t want to destroy the productive sector that’s underpinned our entire economy.”

Graham says the environment, people and business should not be prioritised over each other, rather they should be considered in parallel.

Another challenge in the region is hill country erosion and he’s a big supporter of the council’s ‘right tree, right place planting’ scheme to address that.

“Protecting the sheep and beef industry is really important. But to do that and not have erosion, you’ve got to plant up some gullies, so ‘right tree, right place’ will be a really big thing in the future,” he said.

“We don’t want mass forestation of our sheep and beef farms.”

He says most sheep and beef farmers understand the benefits of planting unproductive areas of their properties, but they often don’t have the resources to put that into practice.

“They’re being hugely influenced by their kids. Their kids are coming home, their kids are marrying people who have a different outlook, so the rape and pillage of farming, which it was, has gone. Has absolutely gone,” he said.

“Most farmers are really working hard, they have got a lot of balance sheet value but they haven’t got a lot of income so we have to help them.

“The whole thing is a community problem because the community was responsible for cutting down all the trees.

“We deforested NZ faster than any other country in the history of the world. And the community did that, not farmers.

“It was government policy, so we can’t walk away from farmers now and say ‘oh, by the way we’re in the shit, it’s your problem’.

“Which is what some people are keen to do.

“Everyone’s just got to be shoulder to the wheel really.”

Despite the challenges ahead, Graham is happy that he has left the council with it heading in the right direction.

He says although staff shortages are the most immediate problem, particularly in horticulture, solutions will be found down the track.

“The industry will adapt, but you have to give it time to adapt,” he said.

“It’s very hard to take manual labour out of horticulture. It will happen, but it could take another 20 years.”

He says the long-term challenge is developing a water use concept that everyone is happy with, that includes farmers and growers, Forest & Bird, tangata whenua and the wider community.

That’s where the council’s proposed Tank plan comes in, he says, as it aims to manage water quality and quantity for the Tūtaekurī, Ahuriri, Ngaruroro and Karamū catchments.

As for Graham, he aims to focus on a few things he hasn’t had time for recently, like his garden and cleaning out his shed, as well as looking forward to seeing his grandchildren, who are coming home from Germany.

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