Tuesday, November 16, 2010
....the long arm of the irrigator
I drove from Christchurch to Dunedin today; 630 kilometres via the Mackenzie Basin. It was a phenomenally long drive for me, and makes me think that I will be planting trees for the rest of my natural life to offset it. Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous drive, but not without it's shocks.
The irrigation of the Mackenzie has been in the news a lot of late, so it was important to me to see it first hand. The media furore had centred around the widespread installation of irrigation systems, largely to provide for the conversion of existing pastoral land into dairy farming.
Dairying is a resource-intensive farming operation, particularly relative to other types of farming such as sheep and beef. The Mackenzie by its very nature is a naturally dry basin and extensive canal and dam construction of past decades is being progressively added to with much much more waiting in the wings.
Seeing the lurid swathes of green cloaking otherwise dry hillslopes was a strange sight (would fit comfortably in any urban readylawn suburb) and I am certain it would fail any gateway test on sustainability of agricultural practice. And yet it proceeds as the bottom falls out of the merino market and milk suddenly looks a lot more tasty. The freezing cold in winter makes the climate terribly inhospitable for the poor milking cows, so the logical next step is to propose that they be kept indoors....another animal rights minefield.
So...lets review....we started farming an dryland environment; it came as a surprise that water was at a premium; so we chopped and screwed the hydrology to devise a complex array of lakes, canals and dams; then we now shift to one of the most resource-intensive land uses which requires even more water that transforms the landscape into a bizarre patchwork of stark green circles on a basis of cracked and spiky earth...and each move is justified by the bad call at the last intersection...
Incrementally, more water rights will be handed over and more and more arms of irrigators will sweep across the sky. Irrigation in itself is not bad, sometimes land needs a bit of help in the dry, but some such irrigators must run almost year round to make this area vaguely suitable for Daisy and her pals. And it makes you realise that managing the environment well has no silver bullet associated with it, that it does not come about as one big decision or a series of large policy calls.
Managing the environment well is the combination of thousands of small decisions made by individuals, companies, communities and regulatory agencies...each one providing a ramp for the next by setting the parameters and precedents....we need to think critically at each and every stage and make decisions that reflect where we want to be not where we are....