Irrigation New Zealand

Overview

The Ashburton River / Hakatere has two branches which meet 21 kilometres from the coast, inland of the town of Ashburton in Canterbury. The branches remain parallel and no more than 3 kilometres apart for a further 20 kilometres upstream of their confluence. The river tracks southeast across the Canterbury Plains in a shallow depression between the higher shingle fans created by the much larger Rakaia and Rangitata rivers on either side. The North branch (98 km) flows from the slopes of Godley Peak  while the larger South branch(113 km) starts as the outflow of the Ashburton Glacier off Mount Arrowsmith.

Of considerable importance to agriculture is the fact that these two branches maintain a water table at a depth of only a few metres along their courses. The Ashburton River provides recharge to shallow groundwater, which in turn discharges as spring-fed creeks. Management of the resource must encompass both surface and groundwater. The surface water is highly allocated; any applications for hydraulically connected groundwater will be subject to scrutiny with regards to cumulative effects. The groundwater zone is currently a red zone.

Membership

The Ashburton river users group includes all consent holders on the Ashburton River. This includes individual consent holders, the Ashburton district council (stock water), Rangitata Diversion Race (RDR) and Greenstreet Irrigation schemes. The consents include both surface and hydraulically connected takes from the river.

Formation catalyst

The group was developed out of a desire to manage water more effectively from the Ashburton River in times of low flows. There was seen to be lost opportunities around the availability of water after periods of restrictions. After a rainfall event if the river had risen above the restriction cut-off level, the irrigators could see, physically and via ECan telemetry, that there were increased flows going down the river but could not access it. This was because officially the restrictions had not been lifted. The time lag between the flow increase and the official recognition and lifting of restrictions meant that the window to access the increased flows was limited and in some instances missed altogether as the river naturally drained away.

It was also noticed that the larger takes both from individuals and schemes were displaying individualistic behaviour and the trigger points leading to the low flow restrictions were not being managed progressively.  This behaviour meant that the river was being “bounced” on and off restrictions. This created extra workload for the irrigators having to continually monitor and turn gates and irrigators on and off according to whether the river was on or off restriction. This self interest was detrimental to the overall management of the river.

Process of initiating group

The large RDR take meant that this scheme had a large influence on the initiation of the group. The initial discussions were of an informal nature between the personnel involved with the larger takes. These conversations began after a period of low flows where the waste of resources and the frustration of constant “bouncing” of the river on and off restriction led to the irrigators to ask “How can we do this smarter”?  The local regional councillor was approached to become involved and his influence helped set up a working party. This party was initially only the irrigators but soon expanded to include both the regional authority (ECan) and local authority (Ashburton district Council (ADC)). The regional councillor and council played a big role in providing momentum to bring all the interested parties together as they had the database and ability to connect across the range of consent holders. The councillor continued to play a significant role by chairing the meetings and ECan provided the secretarial and administrative capabilities. This is still the case although the councillor is no longer involved and a resource care staff member who has had a long association with the group has taken over the chairing role. Federated farmers were also contacted and gave their endorsement to the group and its objectives.

The working party was pivotal in organising, promoting, keeping momentum and establishing the group. ECan promoted, gave backing to the working party and helped coordinate the involvement of all the consent holders.

With involvement of key personnel from the two largest takes off the river, RDR and the Greenstreet scheme, they provided the representation, influence and clout to get the regional councillor involved. His involvement meant that the group could in turn tap into his influence and contacts to advance the interests of the group.

The Ashburton River is very visible. It neatly dissects the joined towns of Ashburton and Tinwald. The only access between the townships is along SH1 as it crosses the Ashburton River in between both towns. The flow in the summertime is naturally low and this was exaggerated by abstraction, especially before the group existed, as the river low flow tended to overshoot because the restrictions were not managed progressively. Because of this high visibility the regional councillor was fielding many calls when the river was at a low flow or no flow during the summer months. This reinforced to the councillor the need to have a better management regime on the river.

ECan also provided support by identifying other groups that could be used for reference and insights. A similar group was invited to speak to the members of their experiences and process. This proved to be very helpful and gave encouragement that the group were on the right path.

One of the first and important steps that the group took was collating all the information on the river it terms of takes, and mapping them. This detailed level of information enabled finding out exactly who and what they were dealing with and from there the identification and prioritisation of issues and options that the group were facing.

This information provided the basis of the rostering system. The roster system was totally voluntary, and was worked out by “who was going to volunteer what” as opposed to a roster being imposed. When the first roster was decided on it was tested as a trial. Introducing the irrigators to the new regime in this way allowed the new roster to be very transparent, inclusive and non threatening. As the roster was initiated with input from the irrigators as opposed to being imposed on them this process engendered a feeling of “let’s give it a go as we have nothing to lose”. This was the foundations for the ongoing trust and sense of fair play that exists.

Skills and attributes needed

A key attribute needed was the personnel involved had to be ‘big picture’ thinkers tempered with the reality of achievable goals. There needed to be an element of practicality in the deliberations and management regime. The fact that all of the personnel involved were from farming backgrounds being practical people meant this was readily achievable. Having a group of “like minded people” was seen as a key attribute to the success of the group given that the management of the river relied on voluntary agreements with trust and ‘sense of fair play’ cornerstones to the workings of the group. The ability to “…get going forward, not look at what you were losing but to look at what you were gaining” provided the platform to engage and get agreement for the groups goals.

The big picture for the large takes was one of showing that the river water was being managed so they could keep community backing to maintain consents – the concept of ‘social contract’. The openness and transparency shown by all participants especially the larger takes was pivotal to gaining the trust of the wider group of irrigators.

A key skill that was needed at the outset was a good hydrological knowledge. This was necessary to understand the implications that the takes had on the river. In this case the CEO of the RDR was a hydrologist so his knowledge was very helpful in understanding the problems and helping to formulate the rostering program. All the parties obviously have a vested interest in the water but the key players needed to be “passionate about water”. There were some involved individuals with vested interests that also were not afraid to speak up and ask questions.

Communication and negotiation skills were necessary to convey the message to irrigators. These skills had to be tied in with the big picture thinking to be able to persuade individuals of the long term benefits; as in most cases the irrigators were losing the independence and some control that they were used to. Effectively the individualistic behaviour had to cease in favour of a more collaborative approach and in effect although irrigators were losing some independence and irrigation opportunity the group have ended up where “everyone feels they have got their bit”.

Purpose of the group

The group has a very strong ethos of fairness and trust. The management is based on trust, communication, conscience and obligation with a strong sense of fair play. They have a stated objective to “Equitably manage water takes from the Ashburton River”. This defined objective and a very deliberate apolitical stance is seen as a reason that everyone got involved and behind what they were trying to achieve as there were seen to be no hidden agendas. ‘To equitably manage’ was a very clearly stated goal right from the outset and enabled the group to focus very specifically on what they were trying to achieve with no other distractions. This is seen as a key reason for the successful management of the river.

The initial roles of this group were primarily to

  1. Set up the system of rostering and rationing
  2. Coordinate the information needed
  3. A secondary role but no less important was to inform and make ECan staff aware of the implications of their own actions.

With multiple tributaries, as the group become more mature there were areas and clusters that were able to work together on a small scale keeping in mind the bigger picture of the river. This approach has moved irrigators away from the individualistic behaviour. Management of the different areas and river stems is able to be tailored and with communication, between the areas, pressure points can be alleviated and flows in each of the tributaries managed collectively to achieve better flows farther down the river.

Now that the group has matured the role has settled down to follow the purpose of equitably managing the water takes. Although the stated position is to be non-political the group is seen as the advocate for the river abstractors and is included in discussions and plans on the Ashburton River. The knowledge built up and the trust gained means that they do have some influence because of their position, however the fact that they do not have a formal structure and effectively a mandate could be limiting if the influence was tested.

Communication

From the outset the group actively promoted open channels of communications with ECan and the irrigators. The involvement of the regional councillor, using ECan facilities and using the ECan website to set up a dedicated page for the group fostered an excellent relationship with the regulatory authority. When the group was being set up it was recognised that to achieve what they wanted a high level of available information was needed. ECan were already collecting the information but not for the specific purposes of the group and it was not being collated in such a way that easy to use. It was recognised that flow measurements in the river that were initially installed as flood warning devices, also gave the ability to track the flow profile of the river during the summer months. The group recognised this as an opportunity and convinced ECan to put this information, along with other relevant information also already being collected, on to a dedicated page for the group to be displayed in the same place. This page is publicly available and provides the basis of information that the irrigators use to manage the river. As low flows are neared the information enables proactive management of the river towards restrictions.

Because RDR has the resources and are a large take they have a dedicated person who, as part of their job, helps manage and communicate out from the website and ECan.

A comprehensive list of all consent holders has been collated and this is used as the basis of less urgent communications such as notice of meetings. For the more urgent day to day management a phone tree is operated. This gives personal contact and encourages collaboration between irrigators. The cluster concept, of groups of takes, also enables close relationships between neighbours and areas.

The group have an annual debrief that all irrigators are invited to along with the ECan representatives including the compliance officers and resource care personnel, who chair the meeting. These meetings are usually not particularly well attended until there is an issue to deal with and then they are well attended. This is not an uncommon scenario but it is still important to hold the meetings to keep everyone informed and given the opportunity to attend. The group is described as having good buy-in but passive involvement until issues arise.

Structure and leadership

The group has no formal structure. They loosely operate as a committee with no elected or, even, recognised chair. The ‘leader’ is seen more as a spokesperson or the person who questions or queries are directed to. The current leader/spokesperson has ended up in the position more by accident or default more than design or deliberate intention. He is an irrigator with one of the larger takes and had been affected in the past by the restrictions on the river and has a passion for what he is doing and for seeing the water utilised optimally. At meetings he has not been afraid to speak up, challenge the prevailing thinking and ask questions; this has meant he has stood out as a person that is intimately involved and has the drive, understanding and ability to act as the leader/spokesperson. He has a very affable and friendly but direct disposition that enables him to communicate across the various stakeholders involved.

Because there is a large specialised irrigation entity (RDR) as part of the group, that has a large take and is highly affected by restrictions, this vested interest has meant that they have taken a very active role in the management and communications of the group. The Ashburton river users group have been able to get away with no structure because they are able to piggy back on the structure and capabilities of both the RDR and the involvement of ECan. If both these support mechanisms were not there a different approach may have been necessary. In this case it has not been detrimental to their ability to function and in fact may have aided in the perception and operation of the group with ease and flexibility of operation and a casual and informal front.

An informal structure is seen to have the advantage of being quick to move and solve problems. It is not seen to be bogged down by process and rules. This is true but there is a high level of trust that is inherent in this model with the endorsement of the regulating authority running alongside the Ashburton group. The fact that the group has such a defined purpose also enables an informal structure.

The group now is considering moving to a more formal structure to create a separate identity with a legal footprint that can operate independently; and to be able to take advantage of any water trading/transfer opportunities that may exist in the future. There is a dormant Incorporated Society that the group is considering reactivating.

There has been no need to source funds as any costs involved with the group have been absorbed into either RDR or ECan structures. The close relationship with ECan (regulatory authority) has been an advantage in that administrative cost and capabilities have been provided by them. ECan also had an extensive network of information collection so the group only needed to coordinate centralise this information and not have to pay for any infrastructure or outside service.

Barriers

The barriers that were identified against forming were:

  • A reluctance to change. The attitude that “it has always been that way, just live with it”. Focusing on what there was to gain as opposed to what there was to lose and introducing change in a stepped, non threatening way overcame this reluctance.
  • Self preservation. Having the relevant information and identifying the issues and the opportunities enabled the group to work collaboratively getting away from the individualistic behaviour. 
  • Apathy. Personal communication and involvement avoided the apathy becoming a significant barrier. Having the regulatory authority and all parties involved would have empowered the irrigators to see that the group’s goals were achievable.

Key steps

  • Defined purpose – Very clear about what trying to achieve – simple – focused – relevant – achievable
  • Detailed information – Relevant to the group
  • Open and transparent communications – Build up of trust
  • Fostered key relationship – ECan and large takes
  • Stepped change – Began the new regime on a trial basis

The comment “… for us the opportunity was – resources are there – so let’s utilise them – for the community good” epitomises the ability of the group to grasp opportunities and its ethos.

[1] A Red Zone is where Environment Canterbury’s assessment shows that the total amount of groundwater currently allocated exceeds the allocation limit
[2]The ADC have a significant consent for stock water as well as being the local territorial authority.

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