Reality Bites: Reflections of a Canterbury Water chair

As Dr Andy Pearce stood to give his final farewell to the Regional Water Management Committee, a committee he had chaired since its inception eight years ago, he couldn’t help but feel a great sense of pride and satisfaction.

“Everyone gets to their use by date,” he says of his decision to retire from the Regional Water Management Committee.

“Sooner or later each individual has contributed all they are likely to contribute, and I think I’ve probably contributed the vast bulk of the value that I could and I'd rather go on my own terms.”

Earlier in the meeting, the regional committee embraced the opportunity to work on developing new water management targets for 2025 and 2030.

It’s an opportunity that will hopefully bring to life some real-world improvements to water quality in Canterbury.

“They will be identifying those next step targets and I expect many of those will be things that are demonstrated in the real world not things like plans.

“Some people might say 'God it's taken a long time to get to there' but these things do take a long time .”

Especially when the planning process is heavily dependent on delivering what the community wants.

Left: Andy Pearce Right: Members of the regional committee hear from Christchurch West Melton Water Zone Committee member Kevin Brown about urban stream issues at Bells Creek in the Heathcote catchment.

Where it all began: Canterbury Strategic Water Study

The community-led decision-making process is near and dear to Andy’s heart. It was, after all, a process he designed and trialled as part of the Canterbury Strategic Water Study (CSWS) in 2006-07.

The first CSWS study was conducted by Aqualinc to determine what the issue with water supply in Canterbury was. It concluded that there wasn’t a shortage of water in the region, but there was an issue of where that water was and having enough water during the summer period to maintain river flows, supply irrigation schemes and further irrigation developments.

Following that “diagnosis” was the question of water storage- where are the places water could be stored, how viable are they and how would they work?

This led to more than 60 possible sites being identified as water storage options. This number was later culled to less than 20 sites in the second study by Aqualinc.

“The job of the third stage, which I designed and led, was to put together a multi stakeholder group of people to see if you could come to any conclusions about the acceptability of developing any of those storages and what would need to be done in order to ensure that if such a storage was to be developed, there would be some reasonable chance of it being consented and publicly acceptable,” Andy says.

“It was essentially to test whether or not you could have some kind of multi-stakeholder collaborative process.

Regional and water zone committee members on one of their first field trips to the Rakaia River and Lake Coleridge.
“It had never been done on any kind of large scale for water- certainly not in Canterbury and to the best of my knowledge not in New Zealand.”

A major principle behind the process was that those involved had to reach a consensus- it was not going to be a “majority rules” decision making process.

“If you end up in a voting process, it just means you have another layer of politics and you don’t wind up finding a real solution, you just find a solution that the majority has voted for but not everyone says they can live with.

“If that's what happens, then it's only a matter of time that the solution that's been voted on is relitigated or being voted on again with a different outcome.

“It doesn’t get any enduring solution.”

Talking about the most crucial point in a consensus decision making process, Andy is clear and adamant about what that is: “Nobody is there as a representative.”

“They are there in a personal capacity for the knowledge and skills they bring,” he says.

“The underlying rationale is that if you go there as a representative, irrespective of what kind of organisation you're involved in, you are under at least some pressure and often very strong pressure to argue the line that your organisation wants you to argue.

“The notion that you try to come towards a consensus where everybody can ultimately agree is much more difficult if people are there in a representative capacity.”

Once a group was pulled together for the CSWS- Andy put to them a number of questions including “Is this worthwhile?”

“This was at a time when resource consent applications were being battled to death at the High Court or the Environment Court and lawyers and experts were lined up on either side- it was a race to the bottom or a race until water ran out.

“At first, about the only thing people in the group could agree about was that the then current system under the Resource Management Act was not working and was likely to give you poor solutions. People agreed it made sense to try to find something better.”

The group’s first task was to design a methodology for evaluating any proposal for irrigation storage.

Then, joining with members of local communities- starting with North Canterbury- they used the methodology to assess irrigation storage options across the region.

“The high-level conclusion of this process was that people were able to come to a substantial degree of agreement, not absolute unanimity, and that some options were definitely more achievable than others in each region and people could agree about that.”

However, one of the most important conclusions of this third phase of the CSWS was that before any substantial proposal could be developed, much more needed to be known about the impact on water quality that further irrigation development would have. Cue the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS)

Regional and zone committee members visit the upper catchment of the Rangitata River to look at biodiversity and water management issues (2013).

Developed by the Canterbury Mayoral Forum and adopted by Environment Canterbury in 2010, the CWMS laid out 10 sets of targets for water management in Canterbury.

Adopting the same community-led, consensus decision making process Andy had trialled in the Canterbury Strategic Water Study, the CWMS formed 10 water zone committees to develop priorities and come up with solutions to their local water management issues.

On top of this, a Regional Water Management Committee, which would include appointees from each of the zone committees, local councils and Ngai Tahu, plus members appointed to provide knowledge around irrigation, farming, biodiversity, recreation, and fisheries, was created.

The regional committee was tasked with looking at issues and opportunities from a region-wide perspective rather than the local perspective the zone committees were required to do.

Andy was invited by Environment Canterbury, the Mayoral Forum and Ngai Tahu to be the independent chair of the regional committee.

“It's pretty challenging to chair a committee of 27 people who have got dramatically different views, very different levels of knowledge and, at least to begin with, coming from quite different directions about things.

“Because it's consensus-centred decision making, the chair has to conduct the orchestra of the conversation without making any rules and resisting the temptation when someone says 'let's have a vote about this' because it's like no that's not how we do things.”

This led to some “fairly unpleasant moments”, but those moments were key to getting a solution everyone would accept.

Is it worth it?: A turning point in the regional committee

Field trips, such as this one in 2011 to the Mackenzie district, gave regional and zone committee members the chance to discuss issues as well as building trust and personal relationships.
“Every such committee has to spend a certain amount of time violently disagreeing with itself.”

One of those pivotal moments for Andy was when the regional committee was finalising its view on the Hurunui Waiau zone implementation proposal which would later become the Hurunui Waiau Regional Water Plan.

At the time, there was a moratorium on water conservation orders on the Hurunui River and so there was some urgency for both the Hurunui Waiau Water Zone Committee and the Regional Committee to form their views.

However, the respective committees formed slightly different views about the degree of protection on the Upper Hurunui and south branch and Lake Sumner.

Lake Sumner

“That was a cause of tension between the two committees but it was also the cause of tension in the most difficult discussion within the regional committee as well,” Andy says.

When finalising the regional committee’s wording for their submission- a task that after six meetings should have taken less than half an hour- someone threw in a last minute suggestion which turned the committee on its head.

“If this was a game of poker, what this person said was essentially ‘I’ll see you and raise you twice’.

“It was a significant departure from everything else that had been discussed before. Some people saw that as very bad faith so there were angry accusations and it descended into a real punch-up. It took two hours to get back to a point where we were no further behind than where we had started from.”

“I went home from the meeting that night wondering what the hell am I doing this for?”

The following month, slightly changed wording was presented to the regional committee, and it took less than five minutes for them to agree to it. For Andy, that was a real eye-opener.

“It showed how, by just a bit of not thinking through things in a way that takes account of what has been discussed before, you can destroy a carefully built consensus.

“That whole episode was a single moment of how nearly things got derailed. I’m sure every zone committee has had those moments.”

The future of the Canterbury Water Zone Committees

Recent comments by organisations who have said they are no longer willing to participate in the zone committee process, also have the potential to derail the consensus decision making process, Andy says.

“I think that's a major risk at the moment where some parties are saying 'We haven’t got what we want from this'. That may be true - they haven't got everything they wanted, but on the other hand, no one else has. I'd be disappointed if the end consequence is the politics that ordinarily play around council table are being played out around zone committees. I don’t think that helps to find a solution.”

Zone committee and regional committee members put in an astonishing amount of time to the process, with little remuneration and don’t deserve to be attacked by those on the outside, Andy says.

Field trips, such as this one in 2011 to the Mackenzie district, gave Regional and zone committee members the chance to discuss issues as well as building trust and personal relationships.
“They are a group of people who have put their head up over the parapet to do something difficult.

“They’re doing it in public, they’re identifiable and people who don’t necessarily have the skill or courage to participate in the same kind of way are unfair and outrageous throwing eggs at some of the people involved.”

But despite some difficult moments both publicly and privately, Andy is particularly proud of what the regional committee has achieved.

In the biodiversity area, the regional committee made a strong submission to the Minister of Fisheries’ review of the freshwater eel fishery, that the long-finned eel should be the icon species for freshwater and catch levels should be greatly reduced. As a result, long finned eel catching has been diminished to almost nothing.

“The minute that proposition was put forward by a small subset of the committee, everyone around the table said yes that's a terrific idea let’s just do it.”

More recently the regional committee came to a clear consensus on how it would advise Environment Canterbury and the Mayoral Forum about the CWMS targets.

The committee determined that while a lot of vital work had been done to set out plans and limits for water management, there was very little evidence of improvement of nutrient concentrations in the real world. Both organisations needed to hear that, and recognise it was something yet to be delivered by the strategy.

Furthermore, both organisations agreed to the regional committee’s advice that intermediate targets between 2020 and 2040 needed to be developed and have asked the regional committee to lead the development of those targets.

“I think the CWMS is making good progress, but it's still got a lot it needs to do and achieve - nutrient levels in the smaller rivers to be substantially improved, land management practices to be improved, flow levels where too much water has been taken are restored, and significant reduction in nitrogen levels in shallow groundwater. These are all changes that the public quite rightly expect.

“I’m optimistic that these will happen, but ultimately the proof is in the pudding.”

“I’m optimistic that these will happen, but ultimately the proof is in the pudding.” - Andy Pearce

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