A new university course was welcomed in the white-hot glow of Canterbury’s water debate. Ten years on, where are we now? David Williams reports.

It was launched into choppy waters.

In the first six months of 2010, the Government controversially sacked Canterbury’s regional councillors and appointed commissioners, because of perceived water management problems. The move, seen by opponents as an autocratic water grab, led to a sometimes hostile atmosphere, including Prime Minister John Key’s car roof being stomped during a visit to Christchurch.

At a more peaceful gathering, a cairn of river rocks from around the region was left in Cathedral Square, a protest, in stony silence, at the loss of democracy. The Government signalled it would make millions of dollars available to financially help Canterbury’s Central Plains Water storage scheme.

Against this background, in July 2010, the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management – a teaching and research centre run jointly by the University of Canterbury and Lincoln University – was publicly launched. (The official function, complete with an appearance by Environment Minister Nick Smith, actually came a year after it was created.)

The centre’s mandate was to bring together the disciplines of engineering, agriculture, geology, environment, and geography to improve knowledge and skills, to educate the water managers of tomorrow, and conduct crucial research. It was also charged with providing unbiased, independent, fact-based information to the public.

Given the events of the preceding months, it was hard to avoid seeing the launch through a political prism.

While Smith acknowledged water quality and allocation issues, he said better freshwater management was “crucial to the development of the New Zealand economy” and the Government saw the centre as “part of the solution”.

The new centre’s use to Canterbury was clear. What the Government, and the centre itself, didn’t anticipate was the interest from overseas.

Surprisingly popular

There was no greater sign that the University of Canterbury thought it would take a while for the new qualifications to catch on than the centre’s first location.

It was based at a lovely old homestead on Ilam Rd. It was small, which was great, former centre director Jenny Webster-Brown tells Newsroom, because they had only two or three staff at the time. But there was very little room for students.

“We had one room with, maybe, six seats in it,” says Webster-Brown, who was appointed in November 2009. That limited space was fine when staff were putting the courses together, and seeking approval from the Qualifications Authority. But once its qualifications were offered, and it was clear some international students qualified for Government-funded scholarships, there was an unexpected influx. “That first year just blew us out of that accommodation option.”

A quick check of the research produced by the centre shows the international flavour.

Sure there are strong local projects, like studying the release of phosphate from the sediments of Te Wairewa/Lake Forsyth, and a two-year attempt to create conditions to re-grow plants in nearby Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere that disappeared after the 1968 storm that sunk the ferry Wahine.

But the list also includes using Bhutan’s Thimphu River as a case study for national happiness, or using coral sand to treat domestic effluent in Kiribati, and research into the effects of flooding in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Thirty-seven of its 99 graduates – who have emerged with post-graduate diplomas, masters degrees, and doctorates – are from overseas, mostly from Africa and Asia. “They have gone back, largely into Government positions in their home countries,” Webster-Brown says. “That’s been very satisfying.”

Former regional council (ECan) chief executive Bryan Jenkins was a professor of strategic water management with the centre until 2017. He says via email from South Australia that the centre’s large overseas cohort indicates the value of its programmes “not just for Canterbury but also internationally”.

“We highly value both the centre’s emphasis on training students to think of water management as an integration across multiple academic disciplines, and the innovative research being done.” – Tim Davie

The Waterways Centre celebrated its 10-year anniversary on July 12, Webster-Brown’s last day in the job. (She remains an adjunct professor.)

It’s still the only course of its kind in New Zealand, and its tendrils have snaked into the teaching programmes of more than 50 academic staff. The centre has nine core staff based on the seventh floor of Canterbury’s biology building, and the first floor of Lincoln University’s soil and water lab building.

To ensure it is aware of the practical needs of its courses, the centre is guided by an external advisory board, comprising representatives from the likes of NIWA, Fonterra, Fish & Game, and the Our Land and Water national science challenge.

Tim Davie, Environment Canterbury’s chief scientist, is on the advisory board.

He says in a statement that the centre has developed a strong teaching programme promoting an integrated water management approach, and has had many postgraduate students carrying out high-quality research.

“As an advisory board member, it has been a pleasure to see this. As an agency with a key involvement in Canterbury water management, we highly value both the centre’s emphasis on training students to think of water management as an integration across multiple academic disciplines, and the innovative research being done.”

Jenkins, the former ECan boss, says the centre has coordinated activities and courses on water resources themes not previously offered to science, engineering and geography students, generating courses for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

Webster-Brown: “It’s a question of creating this tapestry that gives people the chance to learn about the context of water resource management, as well as pulling in papers that reflect their own skills.”

People are still dedicated to their specialty, she says, like chemistry, hydrology, or ecology. But now they know how their information fits with those of a policy person, or other scientific disciplines. They should emerge with a better appreciation for other people’s views. That means that if their advice is taking second billing to something else, they shouldn’t automatically conclude their views are being dismissed.

“They may still disagree with the priorities that have been given, but at least they’ll appreciate why there needs to be that conversation.”

Controversy, antagonism remain

Canterbury’s water debate remains incredibly contentious.

Water bottling by an overseas company and chlorination of Christchurch’s drinking water have been controversial.

Meanwhile, lobby group Forest & Bird’s going to court to challenge conflict of interest exemptions for the region’s collaborative water management regime. And there are increasing concerns about the long-term health effects of nitrates in drinking water.

“Not a week goes by where you don’t see articles or letters to the editor about water in The Press,” Webster-Brown says, referring to the city’s daily newspaper.

She remembers the antagonism in the water debate when she arrived in Christchurch, from Auckland. It was there about the sacking of the councillors. Urban-dwellers had it in for the farmers.

“I’d go to the doctor and get an earful, totally unsolicited, about the damage that farmers were doing to Canterbury’s water and Christchurch’s water supply. I even saw letters in the paper that suggested that the earthquakes were somehow due to the farmers.”

The drawing of battlelines isn’t helpful, Webster-Brown says. Her centre has worked hard to portray rural views to city folk, and a farming perspective to the urban population.

“The science and the data just don’t support that kind of battle-line approach. It’s not all the fault of one particular group, it’s not all the fault of one particular activity. It’s the general way we use our planet, you know?

“Just assuming that we can keep taking resources at the rate that we take them now, and the earth will keep giving.”

She points to a quote written on her University of Canterbury whiteboard, from renowned British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough: “Anyone who believes in infinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad… or an economist.”

Time to come together

The extreme ends of the water debate have to come closer together for anything constructive to happen, Webster-Brown believes. It’s unrealistic to think farmers will be kicked off their land, wholesale, and their properties turned into some kind of park to protect the lake. So opponents will have to find compromises they can live with.

She gives the example of Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere which, she says, has to be one of the country’s most complex problems to solve.

“You’ve got an entire agricultural catchment draining into that lake via the Selwyn River and a number of other lowland streams. You’ve got the groundwater inputs, often via those lowland streams, bringing a whole pile of nitrate into the lake.”

On one hand, some people are saying Te Waihora used to be pristine, which isn’t true. “Just the fact that it’s large and shallow and at the end of an alluvial plain means that it never was a perfectly clear, beautifully clean lake system.”

Then you’ve got some farmers, with their heads stuck solidly in their stock water-races, who think the lake pollution isn’t their fault, that none of their farm’s runoff is contributing.

Webster-Brown says until those parties find common ground, a management plan can’t be put in place to protect the lake.

“It’s no good having a wonderful set of guidelines to protect New Zealand’s water and not actually making them happen on the ground.” – Jenny Webster-Brown

An environmental stocktake released in April painted a worrying picture. There’s little sign of improvement and change might be a long time coming.

Yesterday, in announcing a major review of the Resource Management Act, Environment Minister David Parker said freshwater quality has been going backwards. (The Government has announced a $229 million water plan, but there’s scant detail.)

Sure, the rules for water pollution are set to get tighter. But as Parker pointed out, most regional councils don’t expect their plan changes brought in to tackle water quality to be in place by 2025. The Government wants to put pressure on councils to implement those plans more quickly, through a soon-to-be-released national policy statement on freshwater.

There’s sure to be plenty of discussion about tighter water rules, Webster-Brown says, but the efficacy – including urban councils tackling problems with stormwater contaminating waterways – will depend on implementation.

“That, I think, is probably where the rubber’s going to hit the road next, is actually getting councils to enforce the conditions on water users and water polluters. Because there’s always a million reasons why they don’t want to – from [that it’s] too expensive, that it will put them out of business, to whatever else. But it’s no good having a wonderful set of guidelines to protect New Zealand’s water and not actually making them happen on the ground.”

The low-hanging fruit, as such, is to actually enforce the rules we’ve got – and make them stick. “We’ve got the tools,” she says. “There’s actually nothing, other than commercial considerations, standing in our way of cracking down on people who are breaking the rules.”

She adds: “I would like to see what New Zealand water systems look like when we’ve done that.”

Playing the long game

The Waterways Centre will continue to teach, research, and inform. Its annual showcase of postgraduate research, this year to be held on November 19, will presumably be overseen by a new director.

Webster-Brown is looking forward to more work in a consultancy firm with her life and business partner, Kevin Brown. She also wants to spend more quality time with the goats, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, goldfish, budgies on their West Melton lifestyle block.

“I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to do this,” she says of her time at the Waterways Centre. “We have achieved a qualification and teaching in this field that wasn’t there before.”

She’d like to see the field spread to every university in New Zealand. As to her successor, she says that person has to keep their eye on the bigger picture of improving the country’s water management. (She suspects they’ll be expected to bid for and coordinate national-level research grants.)

Early in her tenure, Webster-Brown was asked by Environment Minister Amy Adams, who took over from Nick Smith, what difference the centre was making. She replied that the people who will make the difference were actually still in classrooms.

“What I’d like to think we’ve done is we’ve put people out there, or we are putting people out there, who can solve this problem in the future.

“That was always the intention. This is a long game for us.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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