Because the environmental manager of the North Otago Irrigation Company (NOIC) saw closed waterways, bank plants, farms in “top condition” with green grass and healthy animals. And that was satisfying to see.
The NOIC system, which officially opened in October 2006, is a pipe and pump system that provides water to thousands of acres in the district’s downland.
The program officially shut down for the winter months earlier this month, but work has continued at the company’s headquarters in Oamaru.
The regulatory environment had tightened in relation to on-farm environmental compliance and the company now employed two people in this area – Mr Searle and environmental consultant Anita Walton, starting in February.
Chief Executive Andrew Rodwell said the company’s commitment to ensuring compliance with environmental regulations and best practices has manifested itself in its investment in people.
NOIC also provided environmental services for the Kurow-Duntroon and Maerewhenua programs.
Mr Searle said the main part of the environmental team’s role was to ensure that the resource permits the company needed to abstract water for irrigation were being met. Simply put, without consent, shareholders would not have access to irrigation water on the farm.
A number of conditions were attached to the approvals, and good management practices were among them. “We need to ensure our shareholders comply with the terms or approvals will be jeopardized,” Mr. Searle said.
As part of this, shareholders were required to have an operational environment plan outlining what they were required to do on the farm to ensure consent conditions were met, including irrigation, effluent and nutrient management and stock exclusion from waterways.
NOIC’s job is to ensure farmers have an up-to-date farm environment plan, he said; An independent auditor audited each operation.
Those who received an A audit were audited every three years, B was two and C was one. This season only one NOIC farmer received a C.
The Bs were “not because they do naughty things on the farm” but mainly because they hadn’t received the paperwork they needed as they were “busy” on the farm and not recording things, Mr Searle said.
The audit list has been prepared for the next watering season and the operational environment plan template has been optimized.
Mr Rodwell said the company had worked to help farmers understand why some might be struggling and “support them to do the right thing”.
This included working with watershed groups like North Otago Sustainable Land Management (NOSLaM) – to which it made financial contributions – to help determine if there were any water quality-related issues.
NOSLaM stretched beyond the NOIC farmers’ catchment area and involvement in the Kurow-Duntroon and Maerewhenua programs was also in its interest as it wanted “all of Waitaki” to operate at the highest possible level from an environmental perspective, said Mr. Rodwell.
In time, NOIC would apply to Environment Canterbury for an extension of these water abstraction permits and so the reputation of the area was very important.
In a theoretical situation, if NOIC weren’t vigilant and didn’t invest in capable people, there would be potentially degrading farms and it would ultimately lose all resource consents.
Irrigated agriculture would be adversely affected, with a massive impact on the district. So it was about maintaining a high standard of performance on both sides.
NOIC’s job was not to argue with the government about rules, but to implement them and maintain the perception of the farming community as one that operates to high standards. There’s also the branding aspect, he said.
Ms Walton said the regulator was “moving goalposts” and the 2017 results could not be compared to now. Goal posts changed as central and local government regulations changed.
Both farmers, she and Mr. Searle had an affinity and understanding for those with whom they worked.
“It is our capital, our livelihood, our future. No one wants to intentionally mine it,” she said. Farmers have generally welcomed change, Mr Searle added.
Mr Rodwell said demand for water was low last season due to climatic conditions and security of supply was very high.
He commended the field service team, which is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to any issues with the program.
A $1 million investment in a second transformer at Black Point near Duntroon eliminated one of the company’s biggest risks if the only transformer failed.
A major project at the moment involved its asset management system to institutionalize all the knowledge that existed among those involved in the system to ensure it persists beyond people’s tenure.
The ability to plan and predict maintenance projects and costs was critical when using complex infrastructure, which is the case at NOIC.
By feeding data into the system, performance can be tracked over time, which can ultimately save money and prevent catastrophic events because the company didn’t know an asset was beginning to deteriorate, he said.