Water works . . . Elizabeth Soal has resigned from her role with Irrigation New Zealand, and has started her own consultancy business. PHOTO: ASHLEY SMYTH

While Elizabeth Soal will continue to immerse herself in fresh water policy, she is stepping down from her role with Irrigation New Zealand (INZ).

The Oamaru-based former chief executive finished with the organisation last Friday and is going it alone as a private consultant in the industry.

Ms Soal resigned as chief executive of INZ in October last year, a position she had held since the beginning of 2019, when Covid-19 lockdown forced the organisation to move its headquarters from Lincoln, in Canterbury, to Wellington.

The lockdown meant having to cancel the biennial conference, its “flagship event”, which caused a significant loss in income, she said.

“It really made the board decide to have a re-look at everything we were doing and how we were delivering services to members.”

Ms Soal was then forced to make a decision of her own.

“I decided that I didn’t want to make the move to Wellington, so I stood down from the role as chief executive and took up the role of regional policy and planning manager. And so that’s the role I’ve been in since October, working from home here in Oamaru.

“Now I’m stepping down … and starting up my own consultancy.”

Ms Soal said the lockdown had forced her to re-think her priorities, and reassess her juggle being a mother to an 11-year-old son, maintaining a full-time job, and also trying to complete her PhD through the University of Otago.

“It’s an increasing challenge to try and find time in the day, right? And I guess part of the reason for me making the change as well, is that, for me, lockdown, and what happened with Covid, made me realise that I wanted to spend more time at home with my family.

“Because previously, as CEO, I had spent the majority of my time away from home and so that was part of what factored in my decision making as well, I guess. And I know that that’s not unusual. I know that people have sort of re-looked at things, because it’s a different world we’re in now.”

Joining the Waitaki Irrigators’ Collective close to 12 years ago was Ms Soal’s first foray into fresh water, so to speak.

Previously, she had studied and worked in resource management and social policy.

“It was through that that I came to realise how important water was to the primary sector in New Zealand, in that it created social opportunities and employment opportunities and economic development for our regions.

“So that’s what attracted me to it, working with irrigation schemes and communities that use fresh water to enable their communities to thrive, essentially.

“I’m still very passionate about that, and that’s what I really love about the sector, it’s full of progressive, smart, thinking farmers and growers who are constantly striving to do better.”

Ms Soal’s first job as a private consultant is a six-month contract for the Ministry of Primary Industries around freshwater policy and how that is implemented, given how many changes there have been in the past 12 to 18 months, she said.

“It’s working within government … working within the Ministry of Primary Industries, but also working alongside the Ministry for the Environment as they implement the national policy statement for freshwater management that came in last year, and associated regulations for that.”

She had empathy for farmers having to embrace change at a fast pace, in relation to requirements set by government at a national level.

She hoped she could bring a voice to the table for the “real world implications” of how ever-changing policy can affect communities.

“At the moment, the freshwater changes are significant, but there’s constant changes around other things as well. So there’s so many changes coming in that it’s difficult to keep ahead of the curve and manage all those competing requirements .. and they want to be actually doing some farming, which can be tricky.

“I think that it’s not a new thing, but there’s always been this difficult issue with developing policy, especially at the national scale, around how it actually gets implemented and what the effects of that are on the ground – foreseen and unforeseen,” she said.

For her PhD, Ms Soal is studying the changing history of freshwater governance in New Zealand, with the Upper Waitaki basin as her case study.

She has done the legwork, and is now in the writing up phase of a 100,000-word thesis, which she hopes to complete this year.

“Which can be the fast part or the worst part, we’ll see how it goes.

“I’ve done a couple of chapters, so I have made some progress.”