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Church forum dives into slippery topic of water usage

By Paul Titus

While water carries great symbolic significance for Christians, last month it was also the focus of a more practical discussion when the Timaru-Temuka Methodist Parish hosted a symposium on the sustainable use of water in Canterbury.

Those who attended the event at Woodlands Road Methodist Church, Timaru heard scientific, agricultural, political, and theological perspectives on water use.

Organiser Rev Bruce Anderson says the event was an effort by the parish to address issues of global climate change and connect with the community. Water is a topic of serious concern in Canterbury, where farming and cities place ever greater demands on limited water resources.

Speakers at the event were hydrologist John Waugh, farmer Tom Henderson, Canterbury regional councillor Mark Oldfield, and Methodist Church of NZ president Rev Dr John Salmon.

John Waugh kicked off the discussion by describing the quantity and quality of the water resource in Canterbury and efforts to utilise it for agriculture. He said though groundwater is widespread in Canterbury, there is evidence that the region’s deep aquifers are being over-exploited. In not particularly dry years the lowest levels of groundwater recorded each year are now getting lower and spring fed streams are depleted.

According to John Waugh, the way to meet the demand for water is by tapping and storing the flows of the region’s large rivers.

“As a hydrologist, it is very clear to me that future water resource development needs to focus on extracting water from the large alpine rivers, particularly the Rakaia and the Waitaki systems.’

He explained that New Zealand rivers have a very skewed flow distribution. They spend a lot of time at relatively low flows, but the mean flows are raised by large volumes of water in floods.

“Development of storage dams and reservoirs will allow us to capture the abundant flood runoff for use during periods of low flow, typically summer and autumn.”

In his talk Tom Henderson described the success of one such storage system, the Opuha Dam, which provides irrigation around Temuka, Cave, Pleasant Point, and Fairlie. Tom was instrumental in getting the Opuha Dam constructed, and he says its benefits have been substantial.

The guaranteed source of irrigation water has enabled farmers to better plan and invest, and their productivity has gone up considerably. A study on the impact of the dam concluded that it was responsible for 500 new full-time jobs, $14 million in wages, and $130 million in overseas exchange.

Tom argues that the dam has also improved the ecology of the Opuha River. Previously its flows would drop so low that fish could not survive and algal blooms occurred. Now, with a constant year-round flow it has become cleaner and carries more fish.

Tom believes most farmers are environmentally responsible, and the need to protect waterways and ground water is being reinforced by regulations from regional councils and the dairy company Fonterra.

John Salmon acknowledged his talk brought a change of perspective and elevation – from the ground level realities of water usage to the higher strata of theological thinking.

He began his talk by describing the Christian view that water is a sign of God’s grace: it is free and it is life-giving. While keeping in mind that water is a gift of God, there are other theological understandings that can also be applied to contemporary issues such as water use.

These include ecological visions that seek salvation in this world and balance human needs with the needs of other species with whom share this planet. “Water is a life-giving gift for all of life, and we must keep a broad view of both its value and its threat”.

John Salmon also raised the perspective of social justice. “When any resource is scarce there will be a contest for it. In this setting, it is not about ‘rights’, or a matter of leaving it to the best arguments or the most powerful players, but a setting where justice and equity become the crucial categories as solutions are found.”