Canterbury's water story

Bill Bayfield - CEO Environment Canterbury

Bill Bayfield, Environment Canterbury’s CEO, outlines some of the actions being taken by the regional council to protect and improve our precious water resources.  

Here at Environment Canterbury, we are responsible for ensuring that Canterbury has enough clean, fresh water today and in the future.

Improving our water is a complex task, and not one that can be done justice in a short blog. 

However, as we enter what is already shaping up to be a typical dry summer, I’ve been thinking again about the many actions that we are taking as kaitiaki, or guardians, to address the damage some of our human activities have on this valuable yet fragile local resource.

Where does our water come from?

Canterbury’s braided alpine rivers provide much of the water to our precious groundwater aquifers.  They really are unique.  Originating in the Southern Alps, these river systems bring water across the Canterbury Plains, feeding the aquifers deep under the land.  As well as providing our fresh drinking water, the aquifers supply the vast amounts of water needed to more widely sustain our population and our economy.

Braided river

Our challenge is making sure the right amount of water is available at the right time and in the right place.  Water allocation is an important and strategic issue, and decisions around water use need to both sustain the economy and protect our environment.

What’s being done to protect our water?

All of Canterbury’s big alpine rivers have well-established minimum flows requirements, and two have conservation orders in place.  But, because a third of the water used for farming and industry is taken from groundwater, we needed to go further.

Since 2009, the Canterbury Water Management Strategy has put decision making about water use into the hands of the local people and communities affected.  This has flowed through into rules designed to manage and protect the water resource.

The result, just eight years later, is that Canterbury now has the strictest limits in New Zealand to sustainably manage the use of our water. 

Rural limits

In our rural areas, these are stringent limits on irrigation takes, on the access of stock to waterways and on nitrogen entering our delicate water system.

Irrigation provides an interesting example.  Gone are the days of a ‘spray and pray’ approach.  Farmers are using smarter irrigation technologies to lessen the amount of nutrients applied, and consequently reduce the excess runoff into the ground and waterways. 

At the same time, the implementation of the Central Plains Water irrigation scheme has, by providing water from the plentiful alpine river supply, succeeded in leaving 75% more consented water in the groundwater aquifers.  Those now using CPW water are also prohibited from using, or transferring to others, their well water consents, again meaning more water remains in the aquifer.

Irrigator on farm

Most farmers are committed to achieving their increasingly tight environmental requirements.  For many, this will involve completing and adhering to a Farm Environment Plan, and applying for a land use consent to farm.  Most are well on their way to achieving this – in fact as I write, 97% of Canterbury’s 1000 target farms have taken the action required, either gaining their consent or taking the necessary steps to get the process underway.

Urban responsibilities

In our towns and cities, there is a renewed focus on stormwater runoff, on sediment and chemicals reaching our urban waterways, and on water takes for drinking water and use in industrial processes.

Here, too, we’re upping the ante, so that people are aware that anything and everything that goes down the stormwater drains – from our gardens, driveways and roads – ends up, untreated, in our waterways.

There is a lot to do still, and in many cases the results will take a long time to have become evident. 

However, I do believe that this localised, action driven approach to water management is driving results.  The new environmental rules will go a long way towards protecting and improving fresh water quality and quantity, ensuring we get the most out of Canterbury’s land and water from generation to generation. 

Thank you,