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Keith Woodford says truth is the first casualty in water debates

Keith Woodford says truth is the first casualty in water debates
Remnant mountain totara in catchment high above Lake Forsyth (Annette Woodford)

By Keith Woodford*

Recently I dipped my toes gently into the debate about how to use water fairly for all New Zealanders. I did so knowing that to say anything about water is like stirring up a nest of angry wasps.  

Both environmental and economic development protagonists are typically convinced their cause is ‘noble’.  Accordingly, many protagonists organise the ‘facts’ to support their prior-determined position. The term for this is ‘noble cause corruption’’, where ends justify means.

It is not only individuals who act this way, so do organisations.

In this environment, truth is the first casualty. Regardless of whether the underlying driver is ‘noble cause’ or simply ignorance fuelled by self-interest, the outcome is the same. Debates become tribal shouting matches.

One of the problems with water is that the true facts are almost always complex. Even the so-called experts are learning on the job, and can be wrong in their assessments.

Science has a way of trying to deal with such situations. It is called the scientific method. Hypotheses are developed from logic and observation, and these hypotheses are tested by measurement and experimentation. When dealing with complex systems, scientists often use models to help them interpret the interacting variables.   

However, the idea that science can ever prove things is a dangerous assumption. It was Karl Popper, the famous 20th Century philosopher of science – who actually spent years at Canterbury University during the 1940s, having fled from Nazi Germany, and before finally settling in Britain - who encapsulated the idea that science advances by showing that existing perceived knowledge is wrong; disproving theories rather than proving them.

All of this might sound very theoretical, but it is also highly relevant to our water challenges here in New Zealand.  We need to base our thinking on known science and known fact, but always willing to re-assess our positions as more evidence comes forth.   That willingness to reassess also applies to scientists – they too get locked into positions and they too can suffer from noble cause corruption.

Somewhere in amongst this there is also a precautionary principle. In essence, the precautionary principle says that it is not easy to unscramble an egg.

I am going to use two water examples that have been in the news in recent weeks here in New Zealand, one being Lake Forsyth and the other the Selwyn River. They both happen to be in Canterbury which is where I live, and so I know a little about them.  However, there are undoubtedly equally good examples from all over New Zealand, where a mix of ignorance and noble cause corruption leads to issues being simplified and distorted, and where so-called facts are used to bolster pre-determined positions.

Lake Forsyth (Wairewa) is in the news because of massive outbreaks of Cyanobacteria, creating a thick green scum. The lake lies adjacent to the Little River township, and both sheep and dogs have died from consuming the water.

Lake Forsyth used to open naturally to the sea on the southern side of Banks Peninsula.  That changed way back in the 1800s as a result of changing sea currents and the deposition of shingle dragged north from the outlets of the big alpine rivers.  The fundamental cause behind the changing shingle deposition – it may even have been precipitated by the huge Alpine Earthquake of 1717, with its consequent release of shingle over the subsequent 100 years, and perhaps also by uplift of the land itself - is conjecture. What is clear is that the closing-off was not caused by man, either directly or indirectly. This was simply nature doing its thing.

However, that is just the first part of the story, because humans have had a big impact on Lake Forsyth. This occurred through 19th Century deforestation and logging of Banks Peninsula, and conversion of land for sheep grazing. This in turn led to erosion, with the sediment ending up in Lake Forsyth. As a consequence, Lake Forsyth is now shallower than before.  Shallow lakes warm up more in summer than deep lakes, and that too has been important.

Starting in the 1950s, there was a lot aerial topdressing of the Banks Peninsula grasslands. Inevitably, there was phosphorus runoff from rainfall events.   

Putting all of these things together, the preconditions were all in place for outbreaks of the toxic bloom from Cyanobacteria, and these have indeed been occurring in recent decades. All it then took was nature to do its thing in 2013 and 2014 with flooding coastal rains which sent lots more phosphorus into those waters, to create the current crisis.

So what we see in Lake Forsyth is an example of what happens in complex ecosystems where nature and humans are both doing their thing. Note however, that in contrast to considerable media commentary, this has nothing to do with irrigation, nothing to do with dairying, and almost certainly nothing or at least very little to do with global warming.

Ecologists and local iwi are working to find solutions. With hindsight, and from a lake perspective, it would have been better if much of the deforestation of Banks Peninsula did not occur. But that egg was first scrambled 150 years ago. And yes, it would also have been better if the effects of phosphorus runoff from sheepgrazing lands had been better understood some 50 or more years ago.   Hopefully, the ecologists will find some answers, but solutions will not come easily.

The Selwyn River is a different story. It begins in the foothills of Canterbury behind the townships of Hororata and Coalgate. It flows all year back in those hinterlands but quickly disappears underground once out on the plains. It is only during wet years that it flows through to Coe’s Ford in the Ellesmere district, and then on to Lake Te Waihora (Ellesmere). 

However, the lowland plains of this catchment have historically had many springs which bubble to the surface.  And until recently this has usually been sufficient to keep Coe’s Ford with sufficient water to provide good swimming holes.

The springs in the lower Selwyn catchment have been in decline for more than 50 years. Lincoln University has its ‘Ashley Dene’ farm in this zone, and historically it was plagued by undercurrents which would well-up in winter and cause major flooding. Although the springs were originally marked on the farm maps, these were removed in the 1960s because they no longer existed. And at that time there was close to zero irrigation in the district. 

These undercurrents did make their presence felt again in the mid to late 1970s during a series of wet winters, but since then all has been quiet.

More recently, there has been extensive development of irrigation in the Ellesmere zone drawing water from shallow aquifers. There can be little doubt this has played a role in the current record low flows of water at Coe’s Ford. However, the pictures that I am seeing in the media of dry riverbeds elsewhere in this catchment are nothing new; it is the reason the Maori Maoris called the river Waikirikiri – river of shingle.   And the point needs to be made that most of the irrigation in the Ellesmere district is for cropping, not dairying.

Although the winters of 2013 and 214 brought huge rains to Banks Peninsula, this was not the case on the adjacent plains. The last few winters have been very dry on the plains, and this is undoubtedly part of the story as to the current sad state of the Selwyn at Coe’s Ford.

There is hope that the waters of the Selwyn can be restored. Currently there are long-term restrictions on water abstraction from shallow aquifers. These aquifers do need to be treated differently than the deep aquifers. Also, the much-maligned Central Plains Water Scheme, sourced from alpine waters of the Rakaia, is expected to produce significant recharge to the shallow aquifers. But it is not going to happen overnight.

My closing thought is that science and rationality struggle in a superficial world which beats to 15 second sound bites, 140 character tweets, and dominated by media which are driven by sensationalism and the need to sell advertising.  Complex water debates do suffer in that superficial world.

*Keith Woodford is an independent consultant who holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University and Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University.  His articles are archived at

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it is the reason the Maoris called the river Waikirikiri...

Maori - just Maori (sentence should read, 'it is the reason Maori called the river Waikirikiri).

Can't figure why some of 'the Englishs' keep getting that wrong :-).

Thank you. Keith agrees. Fixed now.

Thanks - it's the teacher in me :-).

In answer to the question of how to get rationality into the debate about water quality - I think we need to reveal our morals/ethics first. I teach ethics at uni to undergrad environmental science students - few understand what the basis of their own moral philosophy is, but we all clearly have one ethical approach that dominates our way of thinking about and responding to moral questions/dilemmas that arise daily in our own lives.

The problem described by Keith sounds to me like a science-based one - what Daniel Sarewitz coined as an "excess of objectivity" - that being that "science is sufficiently rich, diverse, and Balkanized to provide comfort and support for a range of subjective, political positions on complex issues.” Meaning, there is enough science to go around to suit every values-based position in the water quality debate.

But none of it (i.e., the science) tells us how to act - actions are a reflection of our morals/ethics. I believe, if we first understand, and then reveal our moral preferences in an honest manner - and also understand that there are different ways (i.e., different moral perspectives) from which to consider these matters, we will make better progress and better decisions.

PS a [sort of] related article:

Kate, morals and ethics don't seem to have a place in these pages, and seem to have a diminished place in society in general.

Yes, if I was to achieve one thing in life, it would be to contribute to a movement that saw the philosophical basis of the three schools in moral philosophy (teleological, deontological and virtue ethics) become a part of the NZ curriculum starting at primary level.

I had to read Scarfie's comment twice to get it, but ethics are an important component off all the discussions on these pages. Kate's point is a good one. Water is critical to life and the environment, but when a business gains access in the name of money (business - in this case Keith says mostly cropping) and peoples livelihoods become threatened, then ethics get tossed out in the name of personal business rights. In many cases the law is confusing and unclear, meaning any attempt to establish some level of ethical management can be very expensive.

Ethics are very important and business ethics impact on all of society, yet governments are usually blind to those immpacts in the name of money and privilege - housing, banking, international corporations, tax are just a few areas where ethics seem to not have a place.

I do believe that ethics needs to be given more consideration in the education of scientists. That includes making specific ethical perspectives transparent within scientific and resource management debates, and that we should all (scientists and non-scientists) try and make explicit the underlying values associated with value-laden positions, rather than pretending false levels of objectivity.
Keith W

Thanks Keith - it means a lot to me when scientists from the natural sciences recognise the merit/contribution that understanding philosophy and the social sciences can bring to the table. I also teach the philosophy of science in this particular module... Popper and Kuhn both covered :-).

Most (but not all) of the PhD students I have supervised have drawn on social science methodologies, and much of my own life has been addressing issues that challenge dominant perspectives. So both Popper and Kuhn have been helpful to me in understanding how science works and also how it doesn't work. I try and go where the evidence takes me, and I like to use a mix of inductive and deductive approaches. I also like to try and understand the ontology, epistemology and value systems of those who see things differently to how I do. I also like to analyse power relationships within science and broader society. I like to keep personalities and personal attacks out of debates, and when someone attacks me personally I take it as an inability on their part to advance their perspective based on fact and logic. Unfortunately, my own passion for countering what I see as false facts, false logic, and false assertions can lead to people taking it personally when it is not intended that way. I would like to see every final year science undergraduate take a course in the philosophy and ethics of science, but to be effective such courses have to be well taught.
Keith W

Hi Keith. One point you may wish to re-assess. That 'a lot of aerial topdressing' occurred on Banks Peninsula farmland since the 1950's. In fact there has been very little. The wind blown loess soils are naturally high in phosphorous so there is very little phosphate flown, a frustration for fertiliser companies, who are on record as quoting Sharlands Rd (West of SH1) has a higher annual fertiliser spend than the whole of Banks Peninsula

Yes,I will reassess that. But my current recollection is that the 1960s and 1970s were a period of considerable topdressing. I will need to talk to some of the old timers from those days. I see a number of topdressing airstrips on the Peninsula and I did see a topdressing plane at work up there just a few weeks ago.
Keith W

Keith, you seem to suffer from the same problem you accuse others of.

So the issues with Lake Forsyth can only be put down to its inability to open naturally to sea, the fact that the catchment was deforested over a hundred years ago and because of extensive top-dressing 50 years ago. Although you have not stated it explicitly it appears you believe, based on these facts, that the issue with Lake Forsyth is a legacy one that current farming methods in the catchment are not contributing to.

Are these all the facts? They seem like scapegoats to me and throw in a couple of straw men around this issue being linked to irrigation and dairying (I haven’t heard anyone saying this) and we have the classic diversionary approach of an agricultural apologist. Nothing to see here, its nature or it all happened in the past and its nothing to do with dairying or irrigation anyway!

What about what’s going on now? Is it all hunky dory? Are farming methods in keeping with the carrying capacity of this environment so improvements in the lake are even possible? I have lived in this catchment. I think it is a fact that farming methods in this catchment today continue to cause further degradation of Lake Forsyth. Grazing perendale sheep on the highly erodible and steep and still largely bare hill country that makes up this catchment to the point where no grass cover remains is common place. This continues the human induced process of erosion and eutrophication of the lake which begun with deforestation.

How about engaging with what’s going on now? Let’s have a conversation about farming methods and carrying capacities. Agriculture has an impact, no argument, and this impact (method & scale) needs to be limited to what a certain environment can absorb. In a sensitive catchment s like Lake Forsyth the limits might need to be very restrictive to see any improvements in the Lake long term. Maybe there is no appetite for the required restrictive limits to be put in place but that doesn’t mean the conversation should not take place. This, in my opinion, is where you, as a agricultural lobbyist, need to be engaging with the public, not trying to divert their attention away from what are legitimate concerns and issues.

Same goes with your Selwyn example. You draw no conclusions around the 50 year decline of aquifer levels but imply that it has nothing to do with irrigation because groundwater was apparently declining prior to irrigation use in this area. So since the 1960s until now there has been a huge expansion in aquifer fed irrigation in this area and that has had nothing to do with the decline in year to year aquifer levels? Not enough scientific evidence to make such a conclusion maybe?

Let’s turn our attention to today’s situation with the Selwyn River. Based on Environment Canterbury’s groundwater allocation model, the Selwyn zone is over allocated. According to the report at this email address the two groundwater zones which make up the Selwyn zone were over-allocated by approximately 42% in 2011. The over-allocation would have reduced somewhat over the intervening years but it is well known it is still over-allocated to this day. The over-allocation fact is not something I hear acknowledged much by the agriculture lobby and you fail to mention it too Keith. Do you think this might be a contributing factor in the current state of the lower Selwyn River?

Couple this with the fact that the majority of the groundwater consents in this zone (and in all others) enable the holder to take their entire allocation in any year despite a lack of recharge rainfall and historically low groundwater levels and I think we might have a smoking gun. No legal restrictions regardless of the state of the resource, the state of our lowland streams or the state of the lower Selwyn River. This is not right.

It is how water is being managed now which needs to be discussed. The agricultural lobby would be wise to engage with the public on this level rather than insisting that the current issues are all down to a lack of recharge. It is going to get drier on the Canterbury Plains and we need to be able to manage groundwater adaptively, in a way where lowland waterways are protected. The current regime is not working. Lets start the conversation here.

To close, it is not superficiality I have a problem with, its people who should know better using their academic reputation and the name of science to peddle biased and self-serving agendas.

Here's where understanding and revealing of our moral/ethical perspectives would help - as they then link to our different environmental worldviews - and hence the type of science (i.e., what bodies of knowledge are drawn on, what data we need, what assumptions we model, etc.) we require to solve these issues.

Hazarding a guess (based only on an analysis of the two, very limited texts written here): your ethical basis, perigoL is largely deontological, and your environmental worldview is (in the typology I use) called "Environmental systems and carrying capacity".

Whereas (again hazarding a guess!), Keith's ethical basis is largely teleological, and his environmental worldview is called "Stock of assets".

What matters not is whether this is the case, but what does matter is that both such different views exist (and a number of others too!) and in many cases (I believe) because we don't understand these different moral frameworks - let alone reveal them in attempting to resolve environmental conflicts - we instead think it's always got to do with special interests vs the public; scientists vs landholders; environmentalists vs economists; public vs private property rights; politicians on the left vs politicians on the right etc.

In the interests of revealing our preferences, let me start with mine! I'm virtue ethics (Aristotelian) and my environmental worldview is the environment as a "cultural conception".

And the good news is, if the three of us got around a table and understood the philosophical basis of each of our different perspectives, and then debated those (instead of the science), I think we'd be on the way to something really worthwhile.

This is very interesting reading Kate. I'm currently studying in an environmental field, as well, and I think reading up on the ethical perspective of things would be highly beneficial.
Can you provide me some links where I can find the definitions of these 'ethical' types in one place?
Would love to know more

Thanks, delighted that you've enjoyed it. Best source for understanding different ethical approaches - I call them the three 'schools' of moral philosophy, those being: teleology (consequentialism and utilitarianism), deontology (Kantian) and virtue (Aristotelian) ethics is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy;

The typology I use for environmental worldviews (also called 'sustainability narratives') is from the author Patsy Healey (1997 and 2006), a planning academic (that's my core discipline too).

Cheers and happy studying!

thank you

Regarding over allocation, I recall quite some time back hearing on a radio program an aspect (weakness) of the RMA that I hadn't been aware of. Specifically for water allocation where each application for a resource consent for water use had to be assessed on it's individual merits. The weakness being that the sum of all consents within a catchment could be exceed what would be allowable if it was just one application across the whole catchment. Does this ring true?

Surely any resource consent must consider the capacity for the resource to provide what is applied for? this would then imply that all consents (the total drawing on the resource) must be considered? The alternative would mean that any application could then exceed the total of the resource available.

That's correct - but not just-specifically for water allocation - each application for resource consent is considered [largely] on its own merit and the RMA has long been criticised for failing to deal adequately with cumulative effects. It's a bit more complicated from a technical/legal perspective, but ultimately (where water quality too, for example is concerned) the legislation's application in practice in respect of cumulative effects is what has allowed the ongoing environmental degradation that we are now trying to deal with within a framework that is not ideal.

I agree. My studies cover the RMA, and this is definitely one of the weaknesses pointed out.
A resource consent requires the consenting authority to take into account the effects of the activity. It doesn't require the consenting authority to take into account the effects of the previously granted consents, nor the future ones.
In short, as Kate pointed out, cumulative effects are not considered.
A lot of serial resource consent requestors know this, so they request consents on a piecemeal basis. Knowing full well that consent wouldn't be granted for the whole activity, they break it down in pieces as their development allows....
Resourc Consent consultants also use this loophole quite a bit. It's sad, because this is not obeying the spirit if the law, only the letter.
And the degradation of the environment (specifically our waterways) over the past 20 years or so, is a clear sign that the RMA is still too heavily tilted towards development.

perigotL - Nice that you bought up carrying capacities. This is the root problem, but you cant actually point the finger at farmers here - because the actual problem is the number of HUMANS demanding output off finite land. (And that includes all townies..) And it doesnt matter if NZ has lower population versus other countries - we produce stuff to meet global demand, not local.
There is no nice solution. We cant sit around and come up with moral common ground etc Kate, because fossil fuels have allowed us to overpopulate the world beyond a sustainable level. The only certain is that nature will correct this for us in due time.

This was a nice summary by the late William Catton - who lectured at Cant Uni for a time

I'm not suggesting that we need to find a moral common ground - not at all. All three ethical perspectives are valid, as are all four environmental worldviews - each of which draws on or can be related to a dominant moral framework (which are really just different ways we each solve/consider our moral dilemmas). What is important is shared understanding of each others framework/perspective - and the challenging of actions that cannot be legitimated as morally good under any of those frameworks.

I think for example, that you too share the ethical basis and environmental worldview of perigoL - your fundamental argument being that global population is the root problem in society at large - and the solution is population control, or plague (i.e., or some other kind of natural 'shock' that would dramatically reduce the human population on the planet). This overpopulation premise however doesn't to my mind adequately consider the consumptive behaviours of individuals and collectives.

I'd like to think humankind is better than this - and that moral philosophers who have articulated the body of knowledge that is ethics have contributed much to enlighten humanity with mechanisms by which we can discuss and resolve our moral dilemmas. We presently attempt to solve our problems via what is called an instrumentally-rational approach (grounded in the scientific method as mentioned by Keith above) - and what I'm advocating for is a values-rational approach grounded in ethics as a first point of departure to consider our problems (problems which science identifies we have) before such time as we seek the assistance of science to resolve them.

There is a saying that comes out of many a case study in successful management of contentious environmental issues - that is 'experts on tap, not on top'.

Fair points. But I guess the problem comes down to physics and physical laws, not morals. I see a couple of predicaments that cant be worked round.
"..consider the consumptive behaviours of individuals and collectives.." The problem here is that I think you are hinting at reducing consumption (which i agree is ultimately the only possible outcome). However, this will collapse the economy, there is no way round this. Take away further demand ... and growth (which is next to non existent anyway) will stall. Its not called a deflationary death spiral for nothing.
Imagine a series of layoffs, which reduces demand, which causes further layoffs etc ...This is the cul de sac we have driven into. This will be the shock correction - a JIT economic system is not designed to run at half capacity.
- "I'd like to think humankind is better than this". History says there is no reason to believe this.

...this will collapse the economy

The economy is a notional concept - economics being a social (not a natural) science - and indeed the great philosophers of economics grounded their theories within moral/ethical frameworks. We seem to have lost that historical intention and understanding with respect to the economics discipline - and instead, as Keith points out elsewhere in a comment - we have reduced economics to a sort of tribal application/argument... and we have reduced it (as a discipline) to an instrumentally-rational approach.

Hence, our measurements of economic progress aren't coping/ideal with respect to solving our 'big ticket' global problems.

Indeed it is a notional concept - it is based on fiat money after all - the difference between monopoly money & NZ notes is only my/our belief that someone else will think they can trade them for something of actual value down the line... But as 2008 showed, once faith disappears, the trucks stop rolling really fast. In 08, central banks stepped in to guarantee funds so FAITH was restored.
It all comes down to money/debt representing a claim on (future) energy output. Once the belief that the future output of the economy can not be delivered or live up to the (debt) promises made, you are left with a pile of monopoly money in your hand ... and trouble.

Yes, just as I think we/global society need an environmental 'reset' (i.e., a new way of thinking and working on the resolution of resource/environmental issues), I also think we/global society need an economic 'reset'. The two are in so many ways interdependent - but I think the environmental reset can only flourish/bear fruit once the economic reset is agreed and implemented.

I don't know but I fear those that are the best of the best of the economic philosophers of today aren't yet collaborating on whatever the new paradigm might be.

ham n eggs,

I agree that overpopulation is a real issue,but it's like a 'third rail' for politicians-they just won't touch it. Similarly,they won't go near the sacred cow of GDP and few voters are prodding them to do so. faced with that,I would tend to look for practical measures. Thus, around 1/3rd of food produced globally is wasted-around 2,400 tonnes Per Minute according to the Global Food Clock. This equates to a huge waste of energy,so by reducing food waste,energy use would fall-a good thing surely and there would be ethical and moral benefits as well.

Yes there is no doubt plenty of waste in the system. You can easily extend the argument to say that most of our frivolous consumption is a waste of the one off gift of fossil fuels ... thats a no brainer
But if we do as you say (and effectively decrease demand for fossil fuel use) we will LOWER Oil prices for example (or food prices etc) ... which stresses the system further. See this re exxon mobil ...

"But Exxon’s fortitude has been tested as oil prices have languished between $27 and $55 a barrel...
Over the last two years, Exxon has taken on about $24 billion in debt, had its credit rating downgraded for the first time since the Depression, and stopped buying back its shares, its customary tool for propping up its stock price."

I have a problem with your reply. If you accept that it would be a good thing in and of itself to reduce food waste-and that seems unarguable-then any effect that this might have on the price of oil,is irrelevant. It would surely be unconscionable to say;it would be good to reduce food waste,but we shouldn't do it because it might lower the price of oil. That would be akin to saying that it would be good to provide medical aid to sick children in poor countries,but on balance,we shouldn't do it because that will increase population pressures.

No, there is an inherant reverse logic in my reply, but it's the reality. As you state, given the population issues it makes no sense to treat ANY sick people or try and extend life spans for anyone as you state!.
Imagine the "waste" we could save by not having hospitals ... But the flip side is you take all that demand out of the system .. which lowers commodity prices. I have Oil as the example because it's the master resource, but if we look at Food, what you suggested would lower demand for food because less needs to be produced. .. so producers would have to accept lower prices. This Demand destruction leads to recessionary pressures .. What I was alluding to was that if you lower demand too far, Oil cos go broke and No food comes at all.

in other words ... a financial system mandating ever increasing demand meets finite world.

By using terms such as 'peddle' 'biased' and asserting that my article was 'self serving', and calling me an 'agricultural lobbyist', you provide a good example of tribal shouting. If you think I am incorrect, then it might be more productive to identify the specific errors which you think I have made. In regard to the shallow aquifers, if you read the second to last paragraph you will see that abstraction over-allocation is noted there. 'Straw-man' attacks (asserting incorrectly that someone holds a particular perspective and then attacking that position) simply muddy the waters.
Keith W

Hi Keith,

Thanks for taking the time to reply. I appreciate the opportunity to engage. Fair cop as well. I was being somewhat tribal and have assumed things about your perspective that might be completely unfair. My apologies.

To be fair to myself though I do think I put forward a number of things which you failed to include in your analysis which you seem to have glossed over in your reply. I think it is fair of me to hold you to account. You have put yourself forward as an authority on this subject. To tell you the truth I was hoping for a more complete analysis. I considered the omission of some issues in relation to both examples suspicious and I assumed you had a hidden agenda because of them.

I think my shouting, as you put it, is a symptom of my frustration around water in Canterbury with many vested interests framing the issues (organising the facts as you say) to meet the narrative they want people to believe rather than presenting all of the facts which enable people to come to more informed conclusions. Environment Canterbury has done this around their press releases in relation to the state of the Selwyn River putting it squarely down to a lack of recharge over the last two winters. They fail to unequivocally acknowledge their responsibility in this matter by presenting the fact that the two aquifer zones on which the Selwyn River relies are over allocated and how groundwater consent holders within these zones can take their full allocation without restriction even when the lower Selwyn River is under such stress.

You are right the Selwyn River is sourced from shallow ground water and that irrigation takes directly from this resource have been seriously curtailed over the last number of years. This does not mean that irrigation extractions from deeper aquifers (where those shallow groundwater users now take water from) are not having a detrimental effect on flows in the Selwyn River however. Groundwater takes from deeper aquifers have a cumulative effect on water availability in shallow groundwater. The layers which define the aquifers in both groundwater zones which feed the Selwyn River are not 100% watertight. There are leaky areas everywhere. As I crudely understand it, this means that as the water pressure in the deeper aquifers decreases, due to a lack of recharge and the continued unabated irrigation extractions, water drains from shallow groundwater to the deeper aquifers meaning less water is available for spring fed rivers such as the Selwyn. To allow groundwater to continue to be taken when it is causing serious environmental effects is, in my opinion, a dereliction of Environment Canterbury’s duty. They do not want this known.

Based on how you explained the situation with the Selwyn River I thought you were operating from the same playbook as Environment Canterbury and other parties with a vested interest in status quo.

Ham and eggs. You are of course correct. Farmers are only operating in this manner based of the signals they receive from the wider economic system. To single them out is unfair. The whole system is unsustainable but I still think it is important to question local examples of the bigger issue because it was questioning these types of issues which led me to understanding the bigger picture.

Thanks Kate for your contributions. You are probably correct in your assessment of me.

I am not aware of any evidence that drainage from the shallow aquifer(s) in the lower Selwyn is impacted by the level of the deep aquifer. My current understanding of the science (open to modification if evidence shows otherwise) is that the shallow aquifer is largely replenished by surface runoff (mainly in winter) and that where leakage occurs to the deep aquifer this will be independent of levels in the deep aquifer. It is also my understanding - open to correction - that irrigation from shallow aquifers is no longer occurring, with consents being non-operative. If I am wrong on that point, then someone is feeding me incorrect information. Also, for clarification, my assumption of the leakage from the Upper Selwyn is that, consequent to the geology of the Canterbury Plains, this goes predominantly straight into the deep aquifer. The farmers who have recently invested in Stage 1 of the Central Plains Scheme largely did so because they recognised that the abstraction rates from the deep aquifer were non sustainable.
The foci of my article were on the need for rational debate, that water issues are complex, and that truth is the first casualty of tribal shouting. The article was not intended to be a treatise on either the Selwyn or on Lake Forsyth, but I did use those catchments to illustrate the foci of the article. In regard to being an authority, I make no such claims. In any case, on these and similar matters there are no experts. At best we are advanced beginners. And hence the relevance of the precautionary principle (which I stated). In moving forward, the first requirement is a rational debate where evidence is assessed and debated on its merits.

There is another Gaia related fact in the mix. The Darfield earthquake sequence exposed a hitherto unknown fault which sheared by around 1-1.5m vertically and 3-5m horizontally. This fault cuts clean across the plains and may well have thoroughly scrambled the groundwater eggs. Gaia is, by long convention, exempt from the precautionary principle.

Well, one could say that it is because of Gaia that we need to be precautionary. But to be technically correct about Gaia theory (James Lovelock) - it is more specifically about homeostatis of the earth's atmosphere;

Valid point about the result of earthquakes, waymad, and something you never hear spoken about in water discussions. Where we farm underground tomos can happen at anytime disrupt water supplies - the underground tiles/drainage/water infrastructure just disappear in to a deep hole and you don't always know until you start digging. Where we first farmed, after 20years living there the ground in some paddocks had risen as proven by photos taken on arrival and later on departure - you used to be able to see the bottom of fence posts at the start but not at the end from the house. It was in a known geological thermal area and the ground there was also very prone to tomos and when we lived there small earthquakes.

Call me an optimist but the only issue I see here is overly entrenched positions. I don't see the ethical issue, after all the facts are uncertain, so it doesn't appear either side is acting unethically. The major problem in all this appears to be a major lack of trust on both sides.
Now that is the big issue of our age. The centre seems to have disappeared. Call me an optimist again, but I believe it is still there, it is just being shouted down by interest groups of all stripes.

Good comment! The ethical approach that seeks to find the "centre" (described as the mid-point between excess and deficiency, or the 'golden mean') is virtue ethics (Aristotelian moral philosophy). And with respect to my rudimentary/anecdotal sampling (a by no means scientifically proven technique), I find the majority of people I come across to be teleological in their perspective, followed by deontological and lastly, Aristotelian.


I am enjoying this series of posts,but I need your help with regard to teleology. My OED describes it as the doctrine of final cause,the view being that developments are due to the purpose or design served by them.

Is this not the argument used by anti-evolutionists,such as William Paley-the Blind Watchmaker?

If you mean it has a means/end rationality about it - yes and reflecting this it is also called conseqentialism - as it examines the consequences of different actions/choices we might make in order to determine whether they are morally 'good' or 'bad' actions/choices.

So in searching teleology, both 'consequentialism' and 'utilitarianism' are good search terms. As I pointed out above, the academic source I prefer is;

Hi Keith
I feel I must question your assertion that water only flows through Coes Ford in wet years. My childhood memories are of crossing a robustly flowing Selwyn River at Chamberlains Ford (some kilometres upstream of Coes) on quite a regular basis during the 1950s and 1960s. Whilst fluctuating with the season, the flow seemed to persist all year round. I spoke to a friend who spent her formative years near Coes Ford during the same period and she cannot remember it ever being dry like it is now. She did add that the Selwyn also seemed to flood on a regular basis which caused problems for those with adjoining farmland.
Also, whilst I have no statistics to prove as much, I think you will find cropping is rapidly giving way to dairying as the predominant land use in the Selwyn's environs.

The point I made in relation to Coe's Ford is that although Coe's Ford used to flow continuously (albeit with a very low flow at times) it was 'fed' by springs. Further up, the river was a 'river of shingle' most of the time. I agree with you that the current state at Coe's Ford and associated Cyanobacteria bloom is unprecedented within living memory, and you will see that I state in the article that water abstraction from shallow aquifers is part of that story. My own memories both of this area and the upstream 'river of shingle' do go back to the 1960s. Those upstream areas were often (most of the time) dry, but I do recall periods such as winters in the late 1970s when the Bealey Road became impassable. It is correct that there is now much dairying south of the Selwyn (e.g Te Pirita and east thereof to the Coast) and also some to the north of the Selwyn, but those dairy areas have until recently been getting their water from deep aquifers, and now it comes mainly from the Central Plains Scheme (i.e.alpine waters). However, within the Ellesmere area (i.e. east of the Main South Road, most of which has heavier soils, and where there has historically been much abstraction from shallow aquifers), I believe the predominant land use is still cropping (grain, small seeds and some vegetables).
Keith W

Just adding to my earlier recollections about the former Selwyn River flow.......a good volume of water used to persist above the ground for quite along way out across the plains. I can recall skimming stones across it a few kilometres west of Dunsandel while we were waiting for the next load of hay to come in for stacking. It was only somewhere between there and the Main South Road bridge that the river used to go underground only to return to the surface somewhere west of Chamberlain's Ford

Our recollections do vary. I have seen the Selwyn flowing very nicely all across the plains, particularly in winter, but also in wet summers, but I have also on many occasions seen the Selwyn and its tributaries dry all the way from where it emerges onto the plains until it rises up again well east of the Main South Road.

Who chose the article photo? Looks like a ostrich to me, suits both sides of the arguement as BS noted above in the first sentence.
Biggest problem I see? Nowhere near enough long term statistical information or even understanding , particularly with regard to aquifer. The problem then becomes me wanting to err on the side of environmental caution not believing economics trumps all as others would have it.

The photo was chosen by me (taken by my wife on one of our Peninsula walks; we are often up there). I did so because to understand what has happened and is happening to Lake Forsyth, we have to take a catchment perspective. If nature had been left to itself, then much of the upper reaches of the catchment would have been mountain totara, and the lower slopes would have been mixed forest.
Keith W