This week the Government revealed its plan to spend an extra $12 billion on infrastructure projects following public pressure for them to do more.
It is critical that we invest in our schools, health facilities, transport and technology systems. However, there is an important type of infrastructure left off the spending priority list – water infrastructure.
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More and more frequently, we are seeing the effects of major weather and climate events. The impacts of these are felt in both rural and urban communities and floods, for instance, have major effects on transport and communication links around the country.
The significant flood of the Rangitata River in South Canterbury this week has demonstrated this clearly. The Mayor of the Timaru District has said that the event shows just how "resilient we aren't".
To be truly resilient, we need to think not only about how our current infrastructure responds to these major events, but we need to think about how we can manage water better to minimise and prevent negative effects on lives, property and the environment.
We know climate change will change what "normal" looks like for our precipitation patterns (both rainfall and snow), and therefore river flows, groundwater recharge, and soil moisture patterns. We are seeing this already this summer, with extreme rainfall in some parts of the country, while other areas, such as Northland are close to experiencing major drought conditions.
This will affect not only farmers, but critical aquatic ecosystems, water availability for domestic and commercial uses (including homes and businesses in towns and cities), recreation and cultural values.
Predictions in many areas are for an increasing frequency of major flood events, punctuated by prolonged periods of drought. Unless we think and invest strategically to plan for these changes now, we will be forcing ourselves to manage the impacts of these events as they occur - with much greater risks and costs to our communities.
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There is currently an increased public focus on water quality, protecting highly productive land (including land that has access to water for productive purposes), improving ecosystems and indigenous biodiversity, and supporting the cultural health of our waterways. By preparing for and managing flood and drought events through investment in strategic water infrastructure, we are ensuring that this range of values is better protected for future generations.
Water storage does not mean just large dams but includes smaller-scale projects and other types of storage, such as using groundwater aquifers as storage systems, through managed recharge projects.
Storing water when it is plentiful or in over-supply means flows can be released at critical times to provide for ecosystem flows, hydro-electricity generation, domestic supplies, businesses, tourism and irrigation for valuable primary production.
We know that our three waters infrastructure (stormwater, drinking water and wastewater) system needs upgrading across many parts of the country. If are we are to invest in the delivery, treatment and management of water at this level, it makes sense to also invest in better and more fit-for-purpose storage.
Currently, water-storage projects tend to be proposed and determined in a piecemeal, project-based fashion at the regional or district level. This can quickly result in politicisation of the issues, as communities grapple with how costs and benefits are spread, what the effects of changed land-use will be (often required in order to meet the costs associated with privately funded projects), and philosophical or emotive standpoints on the management and use of water. These viewpoints often become entrenched and decision-making stalls as a result.
What we need is a national-level strategy leading and guiding decision-making. This would provide high-level analysis and guidance – and potentially investment – for these critical projects. And we need this soon.
With our territorial authorities already stretched in terms of providing essential services from small rating bases, and with increased pressure from growing tourism numbers, these critical issues cannot be left to be determined in a piecemeal project-by-project fashion.
An independent national water commission, providing non-partisan advice, guidance and strategic oversight, would bring these discussions up to the level at which we need to be having them. Such a commission could also lead our policy responses on water quality, water allocation and addressing the question of Māori rights and interests in freshwater.
It has been said that water infrastructure issues are not something you fix once and then walk away from; job done. Water infrastructure is something we must be continually fixing, by looking to future needs and the requirements of the community and our environment as a whole, and ensuring we can respond accordingly.
Let's talk about water infrastructure now, before the scars of climate change get too deep.
• Elizabeth Soal is the chief executive of Irrigation NZ, a national membership organisation looking after the interests of irrigating farmers, growers and industry professionals.