The way we view irrigation schemes has to change

Irrigation NZ’s chief executive Andrew Curtis.

Representatives of the primary producer sector are calling on the Government to rethink the way it views irrigation schemes – to look at the purpose of water storage schemes and make decisions based on good outcomes overall.

The calls come as the Government last month announced it’s winding down public funding for large-scale irrigation through Crown Irrigation Investments Limited, in line with the Coalition Agreement and the Confidence & Supply Agreement.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson says the decisions provide certainty to individual schemes that applied for Government funding alongside private investment.

“This represents a shift in priorities to the previous government. Large-scale private irrigation schemes should be economically viable on their own, without requiring significant public financing.

“We must also be mindful of the potential for large-scale irrigation to lead to intensive farming practices which may contribute to adverse environmental outcomes.”

But Horticulture NZ chief executive Mike Chapman says there is a misconception that irrigation means intensive farming and bad outcomes for the environment.

“In reality, organic farmers use irrigation and well-managed water storage schemes can lead to good environmental outcomes. 

“The value of planned, not existing, irrigation projects to NZ was more than $1.2 billion annually [from the CIIL briefing to the incoming Government]. These schemes add to the wealth of NZ, provide food jobs, and keep rural communities viable.

“Waimea is an example of the vital funding role government plays. Local farmers and growers are simply not able to raise the money to fund massive infrastructure that benefits not only them, but the wider community.”

Mike says December’s drought conditions forced Waimea growers to make decisions about which trees would not fruit and would have water supply reduced to root stock survival levels only.

“This is a highly productive area for horticulture and water supply during dry periods is vital. In fact, to maintain production and produce high quality vegetables and fruit a consistent supply of water is needed throughout the main growing areas in NZ.”

Mike says how irrigated water is used needs to be understood in the “full context of the environment, maintaining healthy rivers, urban water supply, productive and sustainable vegetable and fruit growing, and meeting climate change challenges”.

 “There are two truths: plants need water to survive and climate change means food is being grown where it would not be possible without irrigation.”

Irrigation NZ’s chief executive Andrew Curtis welcomed news Waimea Community Dam and Kurow Duntroon Irrigation Scheme will progress, but is disappointed planned Hurunui, Hunter Downs and Flaxborne projects won’t be able to access loan funding. “This is a huge lost opportunity for these rural communities.”

Andrew says local councils see the value of investment in water infrastructure and recognise this as one of the most pressing community issues. “We’d like to see the merits of these projects considered through the Provincial Growth Fund.

“These projects will build more resilient rural communities and provide significant community benefits.”

At last month’s 2018 Irrigation Conference, Andrew said water scarcity will become a bigger issue globally.

“In NZ, although rainfall is relatively plentiful by world standards, climate change will mean it becomes more of an issue in a number of regions.

“This could prompt further investigation of water storage – both above and below ground. It will demand irrigators become more water efficient and new technologies need to continue to evolve to assist this.”

Finance Minister Grant Robertson says the Government recognises year-round water availability is important for drier areas of NZ.

“Smaller-scale, locally-run and environmentally-sustainable water storage projects could be considered on a case-by-case basis through the PGF, due to the importance water plays in growing our provinces.

“Smaller local schemes will help more of our vital regions better prepare for increasingly recurring climatic events such as drought.”

But he says any proposed water storage projects would be expected to meet criteria demonstrating strong alignment PGF objectives “and in particular must be environmentally sustainable and deliver benefits across a community”.

Minister of Agriculture Damien O’Connor says access to water is vital to NZ’s farmers, growers and rural communities, which provide the grunt for our economy.

“My vision is for a resilient primary sector striving for value over volume and this means large-scale irrigation schemes must be environmentally and economically viable, with vital regional infrastructure supported by the Government.”

Greenpeace and Forest & Bird welcomed the announcement, both calling it a win for NZ rivers.


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