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'We care a lot, can ECan care?': Cantabrians gather to rally irrigation consents

Elizabeth Robinson
Water Rally
Cantabrians gather for Water Rally outside ECan  Elizabeth Robinson

Over 100 people gathered outside Environment Canterbury's (ECan) office to voice their concerns over last month's renewed Mayfield-Hinds-Valetta (MHV) Irrigation Scheme. 

The 10-year renewal sparked local and organisation frustration as protestors raised their concerns over a lack of public notification. 

The scheme grants permission for the irrigation of over 56,000 hectares of farmland between the Ashburton and Rangitata Rivers. 

At least six organisations fronted the rally on Thursday including Extinction Rebellion, Aotearoa Water Action (AWA), Forest & Bird, and NZ Rivers. 


Regional Forest & Bird conservation manager, Nicky Snoyink, said not only would she love ECan to bring democracy back to its processes, but also to think a lot more long-term and create a system that is climate friendly, restores fresh water, and works with nature. 

However, the greatest concerns were related to both environmental and public health risks, many fearing the scheme could increase river and farm nitrate levels and in turn affect Canterbury's freshwater systems. 

Jen Dispar, community member of the Ashburton-Hinds zone committee, said the Hinds River was averaging under the current limits, but in some places, it was way over. 

"The risk to ecology in rivers is really high and at high rates for nitrates. There are health risks for humans which although there isn't a direct causal link that's been proven, we ought to be using the precautionary measures in case it is a direct cause to bowel cancer." 

Dr Peter Richardson from AWA said he had seen the damage from nitrate first hand. 

"Myself and another member of the federation visited the Hinds River, did some nitrate testing, and saw the sorry state of the Hinds River. To think that we're going to roll it over without question, given the present state, for another 10 years is unacceptable really." 

He said the river was once a very useful, productive little fishery to take new fishermen to learn how to catch trout, but it was now completely shattered. 

Water Rally
Water Rally Elizabeth Robinson

MHV delivers water to farmers who need it to grow grass for stock and crops such as grain, wheat, barley, maize, and seed.

Chief executive of MHV, Melanie Brooks, said the consent was a consent to farm. Without it, farmers would not lawfully be able to farm without seeking their own individual consents. 

"The importance of the consent to ECan is that they didn’t then need to process 206 individual consents with different conditions and would be unlikely to have the scale or scope of environmental monitoring that has been agreed as part of a catchment approach." 

The consent was granted by an independent hearing commissioner on the basis that significant effects on the environment would be reduced, and there would be measurable environmental improvements within the consent term.

"It also gives the applicant sufficient time to demonstrate that land use practices can change to significantly reduce nutrient inputs and to address environmental degradation."

The commissioner said it was a significant step in the right direction and it was now up to the applicant to demonstrate environmental improvements. They considered it challenging, but achievable. 

Simon Brown, Extinction Rebellion spokesperson, said the consent was like ''rolling a turd in glitter''. 

Liana Kelly from AWA was at a similar rally two years ago where ECan's water mains were turned off in protest. 

At the most recent rally, a car was parked over the same water main to prevent similar actions. 

"Really ECan? We've moved on, why haven't you?" Kelly said.

The rally ended with a set of demands for ECan: 

1. The laws that allowed the public to be excluded from MHV consent process be changed immediately. 

2. That ECan prioritise Te Mana o Te Wai principles in decision-making, one being the responsibility of those with authority for making decisions about freshwater, to do so in a way that prioritises the health and wellbeing of fresh water now and into the future. 

3. That ECan's leadership aligns with its mandate to protect eco-systems of Canterbury. 

ECan staff fronted up to the rally, leaving their offices to hear the community's voice.

Councillors join rally
Can staff join rally Elizabeth Robinson

ECan chair Jenny Hughey took to the microphone to thank the crowd for voicing their concerns. 

"It takes everybody. It's not just going to be fixed by a few people who are elected; it takes a village to fix the wicked issues we've got now. I think it's great you've come along here." 

After answering a few questions, Hughey asked for the rest to be written in an email so the organisers could receive in-depth answers to their concerns - including concerns over connections to bowel cancer.