Smarter thinking, not bigger thinking, needed to manage our water resources

Right now there is a perfect storm for some farmers, but no rain. Drought and commodity prices are hitting hard and creating stress. This is not a new experience, but if drought in particular becomes the new normal, pressure on water resources will increase. It is a challenge to everyone but particularly in Canterbury and particularly for dairy farmers reliant on irrigation. Recently the storage dams also started to fail.

Opuha Dam reservoir is in trouble, much of it is dry. The catchment hasn’t seen significant rain for months, and in the words of Opuha Water Limited who manage the reservoir, “we have reached the bottom of the bucket.” In the 17 years since it was created, it has never been so dry. It’s so dry that it’s stopped working.

Irrigation NZ claims that this is why we should sink more money into more water storage dams, so that our farmers always have access to the water they need to run their businesses, even in the driest of seasons. It applauds the development of the Klondyke Storage Pond, a project announced by Rangitata Diversion Race Management on the same day that the Opuha reservoir shut down.

New Zealand needs to think smarter about the way we manage our water, not bigger. What we should be doing is looking at a solution that reduces the need for an ambulance in the first place. Let’s look at the pressures on water resources and come up with a sustainable way to manage land and water use and farms for the future. Let’s attempt to help our farms be drought-proof.

Climate change is likely to make of droughts more frequent and serious, and with increasing numbers of dairy cows per hectare on the region’s farms, we have created a perfect storm, where the demand for water is ever-increasing but less likely to occur naturally. In just 11 years, the number of dairy cows in the Canterbury region has risen from 542,000 to 1,304,000 – a rise of some 140 per cent. This increase has meant water storage has been necessary to keep up with the thirst of those extras mouths and the grass to feed them. Large scale water storage reduces flows in rivers putting the habitat of braided river birds and fish at risk and reduces opportunities for fishing and kayaking, and yet has proven itself as an unsustainable way to overcome the effects of increasing drought. So why promote an intensive farming model that demands more and more water?

Irrigation has made the conversion to and intensification of dairy farming easier – in the short term. But in the long term, it forces farmers to become reliant on irrigation schemes, investing big money in irrigators and more stock that they can’t keep alive without substantial irrigation, hence the need for water becomes more important. It’s a vicious cycle.

There are things we can do. A recent Listener article talks to those who have invested in alternative feed stocks on their farms that use less water such as lucerne and subterranean clover. These farmers have adapted their farming practices to the environment, rather than adapting the environment to suit their farms.

We should also be slowing down the intensification of farming so that farmers are able to operate with the water resources available to them now and in the future. Land uses that demand a lot of water such as dairying won’t be sustainable as droughts become more common.

Both of these measures aim to adapt farms to increasing drought, not increasing the water demand. If we don’t, we run the risk of more water resources hitting the bottom of the bucket.


5 Comments Posted

  1. Organic and restorative approaches to planing food production may need to concentrate on whole foods plant based.

    Growing crops less intensely and suiting the plants used to the natural conditions existing rather than profit for investors. We need to restore our biosphere not exploit it to destruction.

    Water is predicted to be a game changer as we waste it on harvesting animals or their products as a food source. Heresy to some who are in debt to banks whilst paying bills for fertiliser to ultimately render their land toxic.

    Permaculture is a developing understanding of planning to attempt restoration of some longer term modest human existence.

    Oldlux and many others cite success at growing food more economically with less damage to land and less demand on cornucopian arguments for the toxic growth of current farmland “economics”

  2. All the food growing I have done where I used organic material on my soil gave a better growth pattern than the purely chemical based growing I have seen. When it gets drier the evaporation is slowed by the organic materials on and in the soil. I have seen many comments and tests this is true of carbon also. In comparison with high intensity usage that leaves no material. In an organic system that has few sprays to counter pests the reliance is on natural materials and processes to release the minerals and elements to produce a healthy, balanced growth. This doesn’t work too well if you are pushing the soil balance too hard and with experience and time a more fertile soil gets deeper and more resistant to fluctuation. The NZ noted by early european explorers was full of tree mulch and few frosts if any occured because of it. This is the balance that has created much of our food producing infrastructure and only fools deny it. Permaculture systems encourage people back to a reliance on trees to produce our needs but in a world so out of balance this has to be a long term project – so we need to farm wisely back to this.
    This , however, doesn’t suit the present economic priorities and structures that has become so urban. Many civilizations have failed when key resources they became dependent on depleted, for us the mining of metals and carbon, and the removal of trees has sustained a lifestyle for a few centuries (relative), but like many before we will have to revert back to what nature provides, so lets get wise and go back there to face the amount of unknown in these processes, and learn.

    What is your information that counters my assertion, I accept that not all systems have survived as not all skills and perceptions produce the goals we want.

  3. I guess it’s not easy, because human because humans still need water, especially those who are still not aware of the water crisis. If they still have not been able to transform themselves then it is not possible in the future of clean water will be very rare, even exhausted. Therefore, education about this is that preventive measures can be carried out in each country.

  4. No Oldlux, organics is not the answer to “help{ing} the soils ability to hold water while also holding carbon”. In fact, in some situations, such as a mixed livestock/arable farm, an organic system which includes a typical cultivation regime actually becomes part of the problem.

    I would be interested in your explanation as to how you consider organic farming to be the savior in this case.

  5. Great wisdom Catherine. Organics as a direction also helps the soils ability to hold water while also holding carbon- win/win. The demand for organic food ensures a full healthy market that has a premium of return. Win/win/win.

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