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Central Otago communities are deep into the water debate on renewing water consents before 2021, and setting minimum flows on three important rivers: the Arrow, Cardrona and Manuherikia.

Critical data is being gathered to assist with consent applications and to inform the minimum flow process. I have the honourable position of chairing the committee responsible for the Manuherikia catchment’s water users, but have never viewed this role as representing water use only.

The catchment has 600 families that have a need for water on their properties. Among that number, farmers, horticulturists and viticulturists are the minority. They are far outweighed in number by teachers, doctors, builders, public servants, to name a few, who reside within an irrigation scheme, and use the precious resource for the survival of their property. So representing water users, for this catchment, I feel the representation is a far broader spectrum of the community.

I also consider myself an environmentalist, alongside having a business that relies on water provided by the river.

My sister and I grew up swimming in the Manuherikia, and my children are growing up doing the same. Our family are as protective of the health of our river as, I imagine, are all those families who value it as a key part of our overall community.

Water Strategy Group was a water user initiative that was all inclusive in representation across the community and interest groups, and water users currently continue to be acting in that manner: all cards on the table and willing to share resources and facts to bring a community through this process.

Of late, I have been increasingly frustrated and saddened by groups such as Fish & Game, who avail of that openness, and then when aspects don’t fit with their agenda, they come to you as the wider community and attempt to rile you with concerns not based on facts, via the media. I believe the community deserves better than this, as there is too much at stake.

Even more frustrating is that the Otago Regional Council refuses to counter un-factual public statements, however misinformed, if they are made by any group other than water users.

When we have offered to co-ordinate river flows using storage (while operating within consent conditions and within the historical low flows recorded), to allow all parties to be able to carry out factual measurements and observations to inform values decisions, this has been thrown back at our group with veiled threats of political and media campaigns.

There are livelihoods, community wellbeing and environmental health all at stake through these processes. Openness, factual detail and integrity are required for a balanced and reasoned outcome. We all, as a community, deserve that, at the very least.

Our water user group and expert team want to engage with our wider community on the Manuherikia River’s future management, but the discussion needs to be evidence and fact-based.

  • Gary Kelliher is a Springvale farmer, the chairman of the Otago Water Resource Users Group, and a former Otago Regional Council Dunstan councillor.