The Awatere River situated 25 kilometres south of Blenheim is one of four large rivers running through the region of Marlborough. This region has fertile soil and temperate weather, and as such has become a centre of the New Zealand wine industry. Most of the economic use of the Awatere Valley was for pastoral farming but since the advent of irrigation a land use change to predominantly viticulture and intensive copping has occurred. Some parts of the valley furthest inland are marginal for grapes due to the risk of frost.
The river flows down a filled fault line and has high turbidity during the irrigation season with a large number of thunder storms in the headwaters. This is the main limiting factor for the irrigation use in addition to low flows. The allocation management of the river uses a split A, B, and C class according to flows with the C class intention is to go into storage. This allocation framework has been in place since the mid 90’s. The A and B class water is 99% and 80% allocated with slower uptake of the C class water (50%).
The Marlborough District Council (MDC) is the regional authority.
The group currently includes a combination of land owners, vineyard managers from large corporate owned vineyards and community members without commercial interests in the water use. The environmental perspective is gained through the current chairman having an involvement in the national ‘Land and Water Forum’ (LAWF) process and sitting on regional policy statement review process both in 1994 and 2010 getting to know the personnel involved and the perspective they bring.
The group has a good cross section of small and large scale operations and different enterprises with approximately 60 – 65% of the land area represented spanning the whole area. Not all irrigators are part of the group with some of the larger corporate entities preferring to sit outside.
The Awatere area currently has 8800 ha irrigated and a further 1200 ha has access to water. There are five schemes within that area (Blind River, Marama, Awatere, Dashwood and Seaview) and all are represented within the Awatere user group.
The group was formed in 1994 instigated by MDC. A planned review of the water allocation policy for the Awatere River meant that MDC wanted to get some community input into the process. The MDC wanted a representative water user group to act as a guiding body for that process.
Process of initiating group
The MDC publically advertised a meeting to discuss the future allocation policy of the Awatere River. The meeting was held in a local venue and representatives from the community to form the group were elected. The elected personnel were a cross section of community members both irrigators and river users.
Since its inception the group has evolved over time with three different groups of people being involved. With the introduction of irrigation to the district and the economics of viticulture there has been massive land use change bringing about a change in land ownership and demographics to the district. The current chairman is the only member from the original committee still involved. Another constant that the group has is the involvement of the local rural councillor. The group have actively lobbied for the councillor to be a part of the group as it has given them credibility within and outside the community. As water is an important part of the community they feel that council representative should want to be and should be involved. This involvement of key personnel, recognised as leaders representing the district has enabled the group to gain leverage with council.
A feature of this group is the relationship and trust that have been built up with the council and community over time. A key attribute to achieve this is the attitude of the participants in discussions and negotiations. It is important to go in with the right intent to make it work and to be prepared to meet in the middle.
There is an overarching culture that members wear a community hat and while they have their own personal perspectives and views it is important they must be able to look at issues from a community viewpoint leaving preconceived ideas and personal agendas aside.
Negotiation skills and bringing a reasoned argument, particularly with environmental groups to discussions has been necessary. Being aware of what is happening outside the immediate confines of the area to consider how decisions and policies made at the central and local government level could affect the community is an important part of what the Awatere group monitors. Involvement with the council and other processes enables the group to potentially influence the outcomes.
Purpose of the group
The original intention of the MDC in encouraging the group was to have a community representative body to help guide the review process. Since that initial purpose the role of the group has widened with the key function now to act as a liaison between the water users of the Awatere, the Awatere community and the MDC. The focus is on the core water management issues within the river and area. These include the allocation of water, management of the river margins and bed, and ecology of the river. The group has been proactive and engaging, producing discussion documents with key recommendations and guidelines to the MDC around the management of the river.
The advocacy role is now the main purpose of the group. As the group has matured this role has become more prominent and a key driver for this is the planned consent renewal for 2013/14 with guidelines being suggested and encouraged to council on how to best approach consent reviews. Again with maturity the group has taken on the role of communicating and actively encouraging good management practice back to farmers and irrigators. A key step to enable this is developing good water use records.
A very strong relationship has been developed with the council that is beneficial for the group. They have an open door and access to senior staff and personnel. Bus trips have been organised taking council staff onto farms to talk through the issues to help develop understanding between the irrigators and council. Equally environmental personnel have demonstrated the natural ecology of the river so the farmers could also understand the impacts on the river of abstraction and other activities. With the necessity to install water meters the group has used council to help sell the story that they are needed. The credibility gained and the strong symbiotic relationship has taken time to build but significantly helps enable and action the purposes of the group.
Continued and regular communications is considered vital to the success of the group. Even when there is little to discuss regularly ‘touching base’ aids the good relationship. Council representatives are invited to all meetings and give regular updates on what is happening around the river.
The strong ties to the community that the chairman and committee have means that, ‘ears can be kept to the ground’ to keep abreast of what is happening and to give information through less formal channels.
The group has a committee structure which has been adequate and appropriate to date. The committee is made up of 9 elected members, the local rural councillor and MDC council representative. The councillor is also the local vet and has good knowledge and respect in the community. The council representative is the MDC hydrologist and also provides secretarial and administrative support through council structures. The level of understanding and involvement from the council representative and the level of support are important to the group. It enables a high level of engagement with the council and sound discussions to take place at the meetings.
There is no formal structure or background document and the level of support, both in terms of who is involved and administrative capability, from the council means that they can operate with a high level of engagement and credibility without a formal structure. The council support has also aided not having any financial charges to date.
The group is considering moving to a formal structure and the driver for this is to give credibility when engaging in the LAWF discussions and aspirations. As an informal group the comment made “With no teeth… need to put the metal back onto group to get structure and have a well thought purpose and credibility” means that a formal structure will enable the group to better promote its goals.
The current chairman has a broad perspective from an industry and community viewpoint. His is tertiary qualified and his longevity within the community, skills and experience gained from working in the rural banking sector, other industry bodies and community involvement through school board of trustees roles has given him a good grounding and wide exposure to other viewpoints and similar processes. The ability to bring reasoned arguments and put forward the group’s case clearly and calmly has been beneficial. The workload of approximately 2 days per month ebbs and flows and as it is a voluntary position he feels it would be hard to keep momentum going if it was a more constant pressure. The ability to get “clear head space” is important to do the job successfully.
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