The secret price of water

One twilight, about a year ago, as the feathered wing of a nor'west arch paled against the deepening sky, we received a visit from a young man called Johnny Groome. We had never met, but he had read a book I had written on water and had called in to share a few ideas on his way home.

    ‘I grew up on the Arnold river,’ he told me. ‘I’ve fished it since I was nine. Now the land around it has been humped and hollowed and the lower waters have become a sewer. TrustPower wants to dam what’s left and so I’ve taken our environment council to appeal over it. But there’s only me.’ And then he spoke about being harassed by land owners when out fishing, about the hate mail he’d received, and how his garden had withered to nothing after it had been attacked with herbicide. In any small community this would be awful enough, but then his son was beaten up at school by a boy who justified what he had done to his teacher by saying simply that his farmer parents didn’t like Mr. Groome.

    There was no hyperbole in his story or emotion in his voice as Johnny described this lonely battle to retain what is left of his river. And as he was leaving he handed me a copy of his book Arnold Gold in which he tells his story in a simple and unembellished hand.


We all wish to believe the heartland is generous. But those of us who live in its midst and are reckless enough to articulate an opposing view, learn very soon that when the rural heart is offended it closes like a fist. Two years ago I was attending a water meeting in Waipara where conservationists were outnumbered by irrigation interests. A tough looking character came up to me and asked almost in a whisper if I would put a number of questions to the facilitator on his behalf. I did. I thought he was shy. Then one week later, at a similar meeting in Christchurch, that same man spoke eloquently for three minutes. He explained to me later that at Waipara he couldn’t afford to speak openly because his business depended on the goodwill of a number of neighbouring farmers. I understood his position very well. A few years ago, for very similar reasons, I facilitated a private meeting between four local farmers and Ecan, four reasonable men who felt that if they expressed their views openly, the irrigation cartel would punish them.


But the bullying’s not just in the cheap seats, it goes all the way to the gods. Last year, following the Australian court of appeal ruling in favour of the Wick’s tribe who had argued their right of access to Crown land, Fish and Game asked the high court here for a declaratory judgment concerning Crown lessees and the presumption that they can exclude the public from access. Given that the laws of both lands are almost identical it seemed a reasonable ask. Nick Smith didn’t think so. He rang Bryce Johnson, head of Fish and Game, and reminded him that whatever statutory powers Fish and Game enjoyed, they were theirs by courtesy of the government. The minister for conservation had already refused their request to raise the license fee; a particularly heavy blow given that Fish and Game is the most powerful advocate for clean rivers in the country, and avocation requires money.

    When Dr Ann Brower released her Fulbright paper on high country tenure review she was immediately pilloried by the high country accord: ‘They said I was confused, that I’d comprehensively misunderstood the subject, that I was incompetent and that I was lacking in scholarly integrity. Oh, and they said I was a “contaminant”.’

    ‘How did they use that?’

    ‘They said I had contaminated NZ with “the confrontational socialist politics of the United States”. And as we all know, Sam, the U.S. is oh, so socialist.’

    It was a similarly uneasy ride for John Acland, chair of the Access Committee, when he entered into negotiations with farmers for public access to what is, after all, public property. 

    But the most dramatic, most recent, assault on our freedom of expression is, of course, the Ecan Act. By singling out Canterbury for special legislation, legislation that denies us the right to take water decisions to appeal, the act reduces us to second class citizens in this country. By removing our representatives from the Ecan council it removes a clear voice from the water debate. By facilitating the Canterbury Water Strategy whose zonal committee’s are dominated by the intensive agricultural interest lobby, conservation and precautionary voices are again subsumed.  


We fought all this. The police formed a cordon around the minister at the Copthorne, a young man was arrested for jumping on the prime minister’s car, and a security guard stalks the corridors of Ecan now where never there was one before. And one lunchtime, shortly after this initial flurry of protest, I received a visit from our local constable. The winter sun glinted off the livery of his patrol car and his flack jacket shone as blue as the Nina river gorge.

    ‘Tea?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘I’ll bring it down, Charlie’s just gone to sleep.’ We sat at a table under the spreading macracarpa and as the bell birds tolled in the gum trees I turned the pot lazily while the amber leaves swelled and bled. I’ve known Brian for more than twenty years. He’s lived in this village as long as I have, and his wife delivered Charlie for us into the flickering firelight of a December morning two years ago. A thought struck me, I paused and glanced at Brian. ‘Wait a minute,’ I said. ‘You here on business or pleasure?’

    ‘That depends,’ he said.

    ‘On what?’

    ‘David Carter’s coming up to talk to the local farmers about water this evening. You going?’

    ‘No.’ I said.

    ‘Well, then, pour me that cup of tea.’  


Six years ago, when our local tributary disappeared down the irrigation pipe I wrote a hundred purple words to this paper. It won letter of the week and lightly offended a handful of neighbours. A few days later while out jogging, a ute driven by an old farmer friend pulled along side me. Leaning his elbow out the window, and shifting a tattered cigarette to the far corner of his mouth, he crimped one eye and growled, ‘Sam, you’re going to have to learn to run a lot faster than that.’ It was very funny at the time. But now I find the distance between us grown wide and my sense of humour worn thin; in almost every forum of the water debate consultation has been replaced by presentation, and principle by pragmatism. Winds of change are blowing through the heartland, and I worry that the guttering candle of provincial democracy will not stand it.


Cairn Cathedral Square