Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Community pressure forces ECan backdown

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Calls to save an Ashburton creek have Federated Farmers support.
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An about-face by Environment Canterbury on calls to save an Ashburton creek is a victory for common sense, says a Federated Farmers member who helped lead the charge.

Darryl Butterick says the change of mind by ECan to allow irrigation water to flow into Greenstreet Creek came in the face of mounting community pressure.

“Unfortunately, it was a bit bloody late for those tuna/eels, freshwater crayfish, bullies and other aquatic life that died,” he says. 

“ECan are saying it’s only a temporary solution but that’s not the way we see it. This is just part of wider consent review issues.”

Greenstreet Creek, which runs for about 5-6km adjacent to the Ashburton River, had dried up to nothing but a few dwindling pools by mid-March. 

While irrigation water has been used to top up the creek’s flow during very dry spells in the past, changed consent conditions now block this. 

ECan introduced new rules last July that impose minimum flow restrictions for all consent holders in the catchment.

Butterick says he raised concerns with the Ashburton Water Zone Committee in February, stressing an urgent need to use irrigation water to preserve the creek’s excellent habitat.  

Apart from one email and one phone call, his pleas to ECan, and those from other farmers and lifestyle block owners, met with silence from the council, he says.  

“Everyone is pissed off,” Butterick told media on March 20.

“I walked a section yesterday with a bucket and a little net and found one beat-up kōura still alive.   

“Within 12 hours, we could get irrigation water in there and there might be just enough life left for [the creek’s ecosystem] to revitalise over time, but ECan aren’t budging.” 

The next day, with media now interested, ECan did budge.

Chief executive Dr Stefanie Rixecker announced irrigation water flow at a rate of 1.5 litres/second could be diverted into Greenstreet Creek. 

She acknowledged the community’s frustration and agreed the council hadn’t kept people well-informed. 

“The bigger picture is that we are amidst the impacts of the El Niño weather pattern and climate change, here and now, and we’re seeing very dry riverbeds across Canterbury.”

The Ashburton River/Hakatere is an over-allocated catchment with significant challenges, Rixecker said. 

“This means challenges and the need to make trade-offs – tough calls that weren’t made by previous generations – are here and now.”

Speaking prior to ECan’s backdown, Mid-Canterbury Catchment Collective co-ordinator Ange Cushnie said farmers and lifestyle block owners were feeling “cranky, disappointed and a bit heart-broken” at seeing fish-life stranded, flyblown and bird-pecked. 

“The part that grinds my gears is that ECan is talking about a 24% rates increase. 

“A significant portion of that goes towards biodiversity restoration and looking after ecology and mahinga kai. 

“It seems hypocritical that we have an opportunity to protect an already-thriving ecosystem but the locals who have looked after it for many years have had to sit back and watch it go to ruin.” 

These tuna/eels left high and dry in Greenstreet Creek were rescued and transferred, but many other eels and fish have died. 

Cushnie said some locals had been “run ragged” moving tuna, kōura and other critters from the creek to Ashburton River, and Fish & Game members also stepped in to help the rescue mission, 

Butterick recalls, at the consent hearings, the independent commissioner asked an ECan expert witness if he thought farmers’ warnings about Greenstreet Creek were being overstated.  

“His reply was ‘yes’,” Butterick says. 

“But everything I told them was going to be an adverse consequence of their changes has happened basically within eight months of the new rules coming in.”  

In announcing ECan’s March 21 u-turn, Rixecker said more conversations over “just transitions” are needed “in the interests of the community, our rūnanga partners and the environment itself”, she said.

Butterick, who chairs the Greenstreet Irrigation Society, says these conversations need to take more heed of food producers and landowners.  

“These are the people with on-the-ground experience of these waterways, and the ones who are bleeding from being shafted by consent decisions.” 

He says significantly higher minimum low flows set for the likes of O’Shea and Mt Harding Creeks, with adverse impacts for irrigators, are “unrealistic” and seemed to be about getting flow to the northern branch of Ashburton River.  

This northern section goes dry and heads underground in summer, and has done for decades, Butterick says.

“I’d argue the consents need to be opened up for debate again, and if ECan won’t do that, maybe it needs to be a ministerial directive.

“What’s the point of changed consents that create all this damage for benefit to no-one, including the environment?”

Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.

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