Is California the future of Canterbury?

By Daniel Collins 11/03/2010

I’ve been mulling over this for a while. I’ve been looking for regions similar to New Zealand in terms of climate and geology, or to regions within New Zealand, but different in how the society manages its water. How do other people solve the same water resource problems, or fail to solve as the case may be? Call it comparative water resources management.

My training is a mix of ecological engineering, physical geography and ecology, with a dash of anthropology, environmental planning, and a side order of reality and current affairs. I see a landscape first as a geological-climatic template, around which the hydrological-ecological system is folded. Into this I add humanity. There are feedbacks up the hierarchical chain, but a first pass is a good start.

So to compare water resource management practices I need to isolate the non-human variables first – the environment. You can never do this perfectly, except perhaps in a lab. But we only have one lab – the Earth – and I’m not going to play dice.

If I look for a region similar to Canterbury – an environmental isomer or doppelganger – I start with the biophysical environment. The plains are one big depositional system, geologically. Layers of gravel and finer sediment have been laid down over millennia forming a big aquifer-sandwich. Most of the water comes from snow and rain that fall in the Alps, while the plains is itself on the sub-humid side. Both surface and subsurface waters are important, and ecosystems are certainly water-dependent, albeit really only moderately.

Turning to the human system, it is a developed liberal democracy with a GDP heavily dominated by agriculture – dryland grazing, dairying and broad-acre crops mainly. Outdoor recreational activities include tramping/hiking, kayaking, fishing, boating. Key fishes of interest are trout and salmon – even though they’re introduced. Population is mainly urban, and rural agriculture is far from subsistence.

Does this sound like California? It does to me.

If California is a suitable doppelganger for Canterbury then, will California’s current problems and solutions apply here in the future? And can Cantabrians learn from the successes and failures of our trans-Pacific neighbours?

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