Water: the situation in Central Otago

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Malcolm Topliss was a Central Otago district councillor for six years and the chairman of the council’s three waters committee for three years. In a column for the Protecting our Water series he looks at changes in water use and regulations.

Current water issues are a combination of environmental, social and economic.

Climate change is a significant factor. When, where and how we receive water will change.

We need to recognise the distinction between water used for human consumption, for irrigation, for recreational purposes and that required for the health of our environment as it affects our region when managing this valuable resource.

We need to make better provision for water storage and reduce dependence and wastage, for example water as a tool for frost fighting.

The Government is in the process of developing new proposals to amend the national environmental standard for sources of human drinking water. These proposals will have major implications across all cities and towns in New Zealand.

The delivery of safe drinking water to the communities of Central Otago has been under the spotlight for many years, ratepayers expressing the view that council was not doing enough.

These communities are now starting to benefit from major capital projects relating to three waters (town supply, stormwater and wastewater) either recently completed, under way or planned over the next 10 years. These projects will dramatically change the financial structure of the council from one with no external borrowing and $20million in the bank to a council with a significant but realistic and sustainable level of borrowing to fund these much-needed projects, future-proofing growth and development of our communities.

Water for irrigation, agriculture, horticulture and stock troughs is a tougher issue involving a wider audience.

There is no denying the trajectory of climate change and the need to be resilient in the face of increasing drought.

The way we farm in Central Otago will possibly shift from a dominance of animal protein to include growing plant-based protein crops. Horticulture will also change, with innovative glasshouses already being installed in our region.

There is no doubt we will have to manage and store water better and improve rural land use.

To achieve this we need a high level of collaboration between the district council, Otago Regional Council and scientists, whose research can often be overshadowed by pressure groups in the decision-making process.

The Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry for Primary Industries’ recent discussion document and proposed national direction on freshwater management across New Zealand has significant implications – improving farm practices through proposals to restrict further intensification, set standards for high-risk activities and introduce freshwater modules in farm plans. It is to come into effect by 2025.

Falls Dam is the most significant water storage system in Central Otago, with an extensive catchment area, especially for snowmelt.

When looking at the future options for Falls Dam and minimum flows for rivers, a balanced and considered approach with a good dose of common sense must prevail. The cost of ensuring this valuable water storage system is sustainable and meets future demand for water is enormous. However, it is my view that cost should, in addition to government funding, be borne by all of Central Otago, as surely we all benefit to some degree.

Going forward, economic growth in Central Otago will be directly related to sustainable water management and supply.