‘Big shoes’ to fill as INZ head

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The Waitaki district has prepared Elizabeth Soal well for her new job.

A month ago, Ms Soal became chief executive of Irrigation New Zealand – the national not-for-profit membership body that looks after the interests of farmers and growers who use irrigation and the industry that services them.

She had “big shoes” to fill, replacing the charismatic Andrew Curtis, who held the position for a decade, Ms Soal said.

Adding to the challenge was living in Oamaru while fulfilling a national role. Mr Curtis worked from the INZ head office in Lincoln, but Ms Soal is commuting from the North Otago town where she and her husband Shane have chosen to raise their son, James (9).

“It’s such a wonderful town for children.”

It was an easy decision not to shift, she said. She lives in between two of the largest areas of irrigation in New Zealand, and it keeps her connected to farmers.

Ms Soal has become well-known in local irrigation circles, having been the Waitaki Irrigators Collective director of strategy and policy for the past eight years.

She was a member of the INZ board from 2011 to 2016 and only recently relinquished her position on the Edinburgh-based Technical Committee of the International Alliance for Water Stewardship.

Ms Soal also has an impressive academic and employment history. She has a first-class honours degree and a master’s degree in politics plus a bachelor of law from the University of Otago and is now partway through a PhD with the Otago geography department on freshwater governance in New Zealand.

She has been a Ministry of Social Development policy adviser and has worked at the Ministry of Justice and at law firms in New Zealand and England.

As a 2014 Churchill Fellow, Ms Soal received a travel grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to study water management and beneficial farming practices in Canada. She spent four weeks meeting government representatives, academics, water managers and farmers, and observing research projects and farming systems seeking to improve both water quality and productivity.

That was further preparation for the INZ position. The organisation has adopted a new strategy focused on responsible water use for food production. It aims to encourage innovation through sharing ideas and taking up technology, bringing all parties together to make sound decisions for everyone’s benefit, and creating world-leading standards.

It also entails sticking up for irrigation and irrigators, who are sometimes painted as pillagers of water resources.

Ms Soal said the strategy would take the industry in “a really positive direction”.

“Managing our freshwater effectively whilst reducing our environmental footprint is critical for the wellbeing of our communities and for New Zealand as a whole.”

She has been familiarising herself with the rigours of top-level discussions in Wellington and with travelling to other parts of the country as required.

So far Ms Soal has spent about three days a week away from home in either Lincoln or Wellington. In between, she works from her home in Oamaru.

“It’s a steep learning curve. There’s a lot going on in Wellington at the moment.”

While public awareness of irrigation was growing, ensuring the wider population had balanced, accurate information was “really complex”, she said.

There were multiple aspects to be factored in, including science, environmental outcomes and the need to produce food, jobs and healthy communities.

People had a strong emotional connection to water, Ms Soal said. That made it difficult to get well-reasoned debate on water matters.

She believed iwi would have greater input in water governance as well as in consultation.

The words “mauri” (life force) and “te mana o te wai” (the quality and vitality of water) were “incredibly important”.

own fundamental value. Water is life.”

New Zealand needed to plan how it managed water for the next 50 years, Ms Soal said. It would involve storing water for use during more frequent droughts and ensuring water could be channelled appropriately in the more intense downpours predicted.

There were two sides to managing water use – technological, which was progressing rapidly with the likes of micro-irrigation and variable rate irrigation; and politics.

“You can’t have one without the other.

“When there have been crises, they have been caused by governance, not by infrastructure.”

INZ had a strong team that covered both sides, she said. Her own background in political science should be useful in addressing the governance side, and in advocating for the tangible benefits that irrigation brings by growing more food and increasing jobs, wealth and the diversification of communities.

The Waitaki Valley was proof of that, she said.

“We’re blessed.”