Last Saturday, my colleague Eugenie Sage took me for a drive across the Canterbury Plains. I had seen from the air the landuse changes across the plains in recent times; a patchwork of crops and stock raising has been transformed into a green desert. Driving through, the treeless expanses are vast. The paddocks are dominated by giant irrigators crouching like great steel eagles over the artificially green sward. It looks like a landscape on life support complete with pumps and tubes that drip-feed the water from Aoraki rivers into an roofless milk factory. The family farm houses and the shelter belts that studded the plains once, were hard to find.
Central Plains Water has built a huge head race canal to store and carry water from the Rakaia river, and a network of pipes to push it on-farm. Water that sustained life and a healthy river system – the Rakaia’s nationally important salmon fishery, tuna, terns and other braided river birds, kayakers, fishers and jet boaters – has become a barren, lifeless canal marching across the landscape. Not all irrigation is on this vast scale at the expense of the natural landscape – it can be a useful seasonal support system – but the scale of this plains agribusiness is mind-blowing, the vista utterly sterile.
We met with a local water activist who showed us the maps and the plans to extend this from the Rakaia across to the Waimakariri River. The question on all lips was could the dairy farmers afford it given the low prices they are getting from their milk products. The big irrigation modifications rely on higher prices than the new normal we have been seeing, and farmers can’t afford it. Will this save the great braided rivers of a once biodiverse region? Some rivers are now running dry, and aquifers are being bottled and sold for export. The effects of intensive dairying in Canterbury can be measured in nitrate contamination alerts.
The drive with Eugenie also provided me with a new understanding of the Government sacking of the Environment Canterbury councillors. They were sacked so that the continued pillage of this landscape would have no political barriers. For former councillors like Eugenie who had dared to fight for the integrity of rivers; the loss of democracy and biodiversity go hand-in-hand. I now understand something of the political betrayal of this region and the pain of the champions who were stripped of their office. None of the Central Plains Water scheme is pretty, but its expansion is not inevitable; we can challenge Stage 2 of the Central Plains Water scheme and other schemes that will strip the rivers of their natural flows. We can, and we should.