Saturday, April 22, 2006

John Roughan: Plenty of water down on the farm

The weekend before last a death in the family took me back to the heartland. A cousin I'd scarcely seen since childhood died too young after suffering too long.

Paul O'Connell lived all his 48 years on the farm in western Southland where the rest of us had many an enchanted holiday as kids. Farms are a different world, where liberties are taken with the strictures of life and safety.

You never let on what a near thing it was when the horse bolted under a tree, or how exhilarating it is to cling for dear life to the tray of an old truck bumping across paddocks at full throttle.

Our cousins could drive and handle shotguns at an alarming age. They grew up to love hunting deer in the ranges not far away.

It is a different world down there in the fresh wet southerlies that sweep in from the ocean and turn farmers' faces to leather. People conditioned to that weather have a good grip on reality. They relish the humour of life and deal with grief honestly.

Paul's wife, teenage children, parents and siblings had nursed him at home day and night for the past year but they gave him a funeral in their country hall that reflected the character he was.

Among the tales they told was one that had some resonance for me a week later. It involved his farm's water supply. Previous bores in the area where he had wanted water had been fruitless but Paul was always ready to try his luck, and it was usually good luck. If he bought a ticket in a pub raffle his friends wouldn't bother.

So he called in drilling contractors and when they arrived Paul nonchalantly took a spade, walked a short distance from his shed, made a cross on the ground and said "there".

The drill went down into a generous spring.

Amazed, his brother asked, "What made you think it was there?"

"I thought there was water under the ground everywhere," he replied.

"But why there?" his brother persisted.

"That's as far as the extension cord will go for the motor," he said.

That story came back to mind last week when we read that the Government intends to take tighter control of the country's water resources. They have been softening us for some time to the idea that freshwater has become a scarce commodity.

A previous Environment Minister, Marian Hobbes, used to wail about increasing irrigation and complain that there was not enough water in rivers and streams to satisfy the long-term water demands of all sectors and "sustain in-stream values".

Her "in-stream values"were aquatic life, swimming and kayaking and "waters with their mauri or life force unimpaired".

Last week Jim Anderton, now Minister of Agriculture, and a new Minister for the Environment, David Benson-Pope, duly announced a plan to put all rivers, lakes and ground water under a regime of national priorities and directives.

"The days of taking the unlimited use of water for granted are over," they said.

Sometimes Wellington seems a million miles from reality. Doesn't anybody drive outside that city with their eyes open?

On the journey south I crossed the Canterbury Plains, which use three times more water than any other region. The land there is a thin layer of soil on shingle beds deposited by the rivers that thread their way from the Southern Alps to the sea.

Cultivators have to spend a fortune on irrigation and it must feel like watering a gravel pit. But without it, they would have the grey dust you see on the floors of the pine forests.

They could probably save some water by irrigating only at night, though it seems hardly necessary.

For even now, at the end of a summer so dry in the hydro catchments that the country probably faces power shortages this winter, and even in the thirstiest region of all, there appeared to be plenty of water in the rivers. (I couldn't swear to their mauri.)

Take to the air, fly the length of New Zealand and almost everywhere, even at this time of year, there is plenty of water on the ground. The only freshwater that needs closer attention is in lakes such as Rotorua and Rotoiti, poisoned apparently by farm run-off. But that is a different problem.

This "water shortage", I suspect, is another of those planetary environmental concerns that simply don't apply to this country.

At the election last year Labour lost practically all the rural, or partly rural, electorates it had held. The lack is beginning to show.

Farmers, more than any other people, have their feet on the ground. They know the value of what they do for the economy. They also know the value of their environment and its recreational resources. The lifestyle it provides is often the main reason they work for a return they say is quite modest when they calculate the hours they put in. Many need employment off the farm as well.

Water use for industry and agriculture is already managed by regionally issued permits and even the Environment Minister says the system for the most part is working well. So why fix it?

The explanation in his written statement could have been lifted from a Yes Minister script: "Changing circumstances, including increasing demand and competition for water, require a new, more dynamic and flexible strategy for managing our water sustainably into the future."

Imagine running that one past Paul O'Connell as he strode out with his spade to mark the spot for his water bore. He might have paused long enough to adjust his baseball cap, fix the policy maker with a frank stare of wonder and offer some words of rustic wisdom: "Get off the grass."

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