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Farmers Battle Environment Canterbury Over Water Cuts

June 23, 2004

More than 1000 Mid Canterbury farmers claim their livelihoods are under threat by Environment Canterbury’s plan to slash stock water consumption by 80% - and they’re lacing up their boxing gloves for a fight. The rich farming district around Ashburton relies on 3600km of man-made water races, fed by the Ashburton River, to supply drinking water for sheep and cattle on the drought-prone plains.

Environment Canterbury believes the stock races are taking too much water out of the river, on top of what is extracted for irrigation, and has proposed a new regime to raise the river’s minimum flow. This requires farmers to cut stock water consumption to 20% of its current level, beginning in 2008.

Ashburton Mayor Murray Anderson backs the farmers in their opposition to the proposal, which he believes will seriously damage his district’s economy if it’s allowed to proceed in its current form. Anderson points out the stock water races have been the district’s “life blood” since the late 19th century when the early settlers started digging them.

He acknowledges the need to keep more water in the Ashburton River and his council is committed to gradually constructing a piped stock water system to replace the inefficient races. But the cost of piping water throughout the district is estimated at $100m and it won’t happen overnight. Anderson claims: “Environment Canterbury’s role is not to dictate to the people of this district how our resources will be managed.” He has pledged his council will go into bat for the farmers and is confident a “common sense” solution can be reached.

Environment Canterbury councillor Angus McKay believes the stock water plan is the most equitable way to increase the flow in the Ashburton River, because savings made in stock water will allow more vital irrigation. McKay believes the long-term answer to the district’s chronic water shortage is to build a $120m dam in the headwaters of the Ashburton River, to store water, a proposal that has been on the drawing board for many years but has not come to fruition due to the cost.

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