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  • In Defense of Braided Rivers as ‘public goods’

    Posted on May 5, 2019 by in Advocacy, Canterbury Water Management Strategy, ECan, Fresh water management, Zone Committee meetings

    Before we can protect something, we need to know (a) what’s threatening it, (b) where it is, and (c) why protecting it matters (ie, what values do we place on it?). That’s pretty obvious, right? But what happens when that ‘something’ is a dynamic collection of waterways and complex (and oh, by the way, globally rare) ecosystem? Certainly, you can look out of an aircraft and point to one of these Canterbury icons, and say, ‘There’s a braided river!’ But exactly where does ‘braided river’ end and ‘land’ begin?

    ECan, whose job is in good part to protect what are known as ‘public goods’, wants to protect braided rivers. To do so, they sought answers to understand what’s threatening them. Research was done and reports were written and made public. Based on hard science, the reports were nevertheless really easy to understand and had simple pictures. Some were also very alarming because braided rivers were being systematically converted to ‘normal’ rivers by the encroachment of agriculture. . I distributed the reports far and wide and invited the writers to speak at free public seminars hosted by BRaid in 2016 and 2017, which they did. In short, this farming sector ‘land grab’ became both public and common knowledge.

    As we can engineer rivers to do more or less as we please (the Waimakariri River for example, has been constrained by levees and flood banks for economic and social reasons) ECan then began to consider the (b) and (c) questions together: Can we define braided rivers by their collective economic, social, cultural, and environmental values, rather than just where they sit in the landscape?

    This approach had merit because it encouraged stakeholders to really consider how we value these rivers. ECan began the BRIDGE community conversations with different ideas: could we define the edges of braided rivers based on historic flood maps? What about the changes we’ve already made to the rivers, to protect towns and cities from floods, and to protect critical infrastructure like main roads, bridges, power lines, and communications hubs? Should farmers be allowed to protect their property from floods? Are you happy to see agricultural pivots right up to the edge of the water? What do you think?

    Of course nobody was entirely happy at the BRIDGE project meetings, because everyone’s values differed. But that’s what community engagement and public meetings are all about. From the meetings I attended, the general consensus was that we can’t wind back the past, however we should prevent further encroachment and damage to these precious icons. But, we still need a contemporary ‘line on the map’ as it were, to define what we now decide are braided rivers.

    Meanwhile, the flood ‘line on the map’ idea was tested in court. As things turned out, it didn’t fly. The High Court ruled that under the RMA, a river is a body of water from bank to bank. I’m oversimplifying here for the sake of brevity, but ‘floods’ are events that overtop ‘banks’. That means all that ‘land’ either side of the channels in braided rivers, possibly even the temporary islands between the channels (although that’s not yet clear) is ‘land’. As such, unless this ‘land’ is protected through other statutory mechanisms (such as being defined as ‘wetland’, which most of it is not) when it comes to protecting braided rivers, under the existing definition of ‘rivers’ the RMA is pretty much useless.

    So, in North Canterbury, farmers thumbed their nose at the last BRIDGE meeting, and yet another headliner makes it into Stuff about the evils of ECan. Don’t get me wrong. Many many farmers are keen to see our braided rivers protected, and they’re making every effort to do so. But High Court ruling notwithstanding, accusing ECan of attempting a ‘land grab’ because they’re endeavouring to protect our public goods, is an Orwellian inversion of reality, one where doublespeak is used to defend the destruction of what’s left of globally rare braided river ecosystems for the short-term corporate and/or personal profit of a few.

    Our braided rivers are very much ‘public goods’, and I applaud ECan for their continuing efforts in trying to protect them.

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