The Canterbury Regional Council’s Freshwater Legacy.

A Pictorial Essay

When the Key government sat down with its MAF advisors in 2009 to double New Zealand’s GDP through ramping up irrigated dairy farming in Canterbury, it passed the Environment Canterbury Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management (Irrigation) Act 2010. (Ecan Act).

This legislation passed under urgency gave legal primacy to the non-statutory Canterbury Mayoral Forum’s 2009 drought response plan, the Canterbury Water Management (Irrigation) Strategy, (CWMS).

The Mayors’ irrigation plan or CWMS created 10 water zones managed by committees comprised largely of landowner/irrigators to manage Canterbury’s freshwater resource. The water zone committees were a cynical pretence of “community collaboration.”

These committees set toxic environmental limits and adopted the farmer-friendly non-validated and non-verified “farm environment plans” based on Good Management Practice GMP. The OVERSEER model, a model originally developed to sell synthetic nitrate fertilizer to farmers, was “tweaked” to estimate the amount of nitrate leached into Canterbury’s aquifers.

Without testing the OVERSEER model on Canterbury’s vulnerable porous soils which are highly prone to nitrate leaching, the Zone Committees and Ecan set long term limits for pollution consents based on current farming practices. These pollution consents now determine the capital value of farmland in Canterbury.

The recent 10-year rollover of the MVH irrigation scheme was approved by an “independent commissioner” in a non-notified hearing.

The Canterbury Regional Council employed “independent commissioners” to oversee the privatization of the region’s water in largely non-notified hearings which excluded members of the public by laws created for this purpose. The net result was gross over-allocation of the region’s water, depleting aquifers, braided, and aquifer fed rivers and streams.

This has virtually wiped out the lowland recreational fisheries in the region’s aquifer fed rivers and caused the near extinction of a keystone native fish, (Stokell’s smelt), from the river mouths of the Rangitata, Ashburton, and Rakaia Rivers, resulting in declining populations of endangered gulls, terns, recreational and other native fish.

Ten years on the legacy of this single focus policy which gave first-order priority to the economy, with little or no regard to the environment, in direct contradiction to previous and existing legislation, has delivered the legacy the NZFFA has captured in images across the Central Canterbury Plains;

The Lower Selwyn River

Barely flowing at Chamberlain’s Ford. Nitrate levels now approach 10 mg/L NO3-N.

Pathogenic E. coli, toxic algae, nuisance filamentous algae, overgrowth of macrophytes, has created dangerous conditions for swimming for people and dogs. Watercress should not be harvested from this polluted river. There is no longer a recreational fishery. The manicured camping grounds at Chamberlain’s Ford and Coe’s Ford saw little use this summer.

Lower Selwyn River

The Irwell River

Dry from December through April 2021.

Farmers with consents to take surface water from this dry river have been able to shift their irrigation takes to the adjacent groundwater in order get reliable quantities of water.

The Irwell River

Harts Creek (No image)

While adjacent landowners have been proactive in fencing and planting the riparian margins, Hart’s Creek has nitrate levels around 8.0 mg/L NO3-N.

Various Drains

Ecan has no minimum flows for the lowland drains across the Selwyn Water Zone (Pers. comm. Ecan council worker recording low data).

Various Drains

Various Drains

Various Drains

DOC Mudfish Warning

Hopefully, there are some mudfish still alive in mud pockets in the moist drain below.

These fish truly are endangered!

Mudfish Truly Endangered

Rakaia River

Sea trout and salmon fisheries are in marked decline.

The once extremely abundance Stokell’s smelt have all but disappeared.

Rakaia River

North Rakaia River defoliated March 2021 with aerial applications of concentrated glyphosate.

North Rakaia River defoliated March 2021

Hinds River 25 April 2021

Dry at Boundary Road

Barely flowing at Blackbridge. 6.47 mg/L NO3-N

Depleted Hinds River water flowing down a bladed channel at Poplars Road Bridge. The river bed has been sprayed with herbicide. 6.58 mg/L NO3-N

This once prolific and accessible fly fishing stream is totally stuffed.

Tap water at Lowcliffe Hall 12.0mg/L exceeds the New Zealand MAV of 11.3 for drinking water

Two large drains/streams tested along the coast between Coldstream and Brogdens Road had nitrate levels of 9.84 and 10.3 mg/L NO3-N

Hinds River 25 April 2021

Boundary Road

Boundary Road

Blackbridge Surveyors Road

Blackbridge Surveyors Road

Poplar Road Bridge

Poplar Road Bridge

Poplar Road Bridge Pump sucking water from beneath a dry drain in the Longbeach area

Pump sucking water from beneath a dry drain in the Longbeach area.

The Hinds Valetta Mayfield HVM irrigation & nitrate pollution consents were rolled over for a further 10 years in April 2021 at non-notified Ecan managed Hearing.

Apparently environmentalists do not understand the complexities of the consents or appreciate the improvements this zone committee has achieved over the previous 10 years.

S. 30 RMA 1991

The purpose of a regional council is to (shall) manage land use to maintain and enhance a region’s freshwater;

  • quantity
  • quality
  • ecosystems
  • coastal waters

Is the Environment Canterbury Regional Council exempt?

New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers is utterly disgusted that the freshwater anglers in the Canterbury region have received “the back of Ecan’s hand” for two decades.

The Federation cannot see how a 24% rate increase will make the largest and best-resourced regional council in the country perform any better.

The Executive


PS, a suggested alternate would be:
The purpose of the ECan rates rise is to pay to remediate farm pollution. Not only have you lost all the recreational opportunity, and the ecosystem, but ECan wants you to pay to fix the pollution, without even turning off the [shit] tap which causes it

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6 Responses to The Canterbury Regional Council’s Freshwater Legacy.

  1. Colin Taylor says:

    Reading about the depletion and destruction of the feeder rivers and streams into Lake Ellesmere in order to divert water into polluting dairy farms that should never be located in the traditionally dry Canterbury Plains, is just horrific and so sad.
    Why could we not ‘learn from history’ eg the 1960s-90s destruction of the freshwater Aral Sea in the USSR (the 4th largest body of freshwater in the world) due to its rivers being diverted into industrial cotton production?
    Christchurch teenagers, like myself in the 1960s, now cannot enjoy the superb fly fishing offered by the Selwyn River and Harts Creek that I used to fly fish regularly on Summer nights with a family friend and English chalk stream enthusiast, Randall Gardiner. See attached photo of one evening’s fly fishing on the Selwyn back in the 1960s.

    NZFFA - New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers

  2. Raewyn says:

    Why does this not surprise me. The stuff I hear about ECAN and Christchurch regional council some of the worst in NZ.
    Problem is firstly they don’t employ staff with expertise.
    There is no point employing a bunch of office clerks to be making decisions about things that requires more in depth understanding.
    Or employing people too young to have enough lived experience.
    It doesn’t help when one of their so called science experts has literally no expertise on waste, environment yet rackes in alot of money that is undeserving of her position.
    Seriously anyone with average intelligence in year 9 could work out not to spray a water way!

  3. Reg McCloud says:

    Thank goodness for the NZ Federation of Freshwater Anglers, truly an alert watch dog.

  4. Peter williams says:

    Thanks guys, you are doing a great job.
    Ps Keep you eyes out for a “paper” I have just written on the deteriorating Lake Clearwater. Will be released to the press shortly and can then send you a copy direct.

  5. Stu Paterson says:

    Canterbury born and residing in south Australia. Very similar problems here with water allocations and the bias fully in the farmers favour. Can you please send me your paper when available. Cheers Stu

  6. Keith Hawkins says:

    it never ceases to amaze me that people keep voting to have a national government after they wrought havoc on the lowland streams and waterways of Canterbury.
    the puppet councilors on e-can not only cost us hundreds of millions supporting irrigation they now want to spend millions cleaning up the mess they created.

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