Andrew Curtis: Future depends on water control

By Andrew Curtis

Andrew Curtis
Andrew Curtis

As countries pick up dairy exports and pull our price down, many are questioning New Zealand's ability to keep its economy in the balance through agriculture. But we can, and we have to.

New Zealand does have the ability to feed the world with crops, vegetables and seeds, but only if we are able to unlock our most precious natural resource, water. This needs to be done with regional scale water storage and irrigation.

Irrigation will enable us to grow more grass, cost effectively, through precise application of water, also limiting nutrient run-off. If we grow grass efficiently we will be able to better compete with the squeeze on the dairy price globally. No arguments that this infrastructure needs to be built with sustainability and efficiency. But the benefits of water storage and irrigation need to be more overtly recognised.

To move on with any momentum the Government needs to help fund this transformational infrastructure and ensure the process to get it built is not impeded in court.

Opportunities abound. National horticultural production exceeds $7 billion and provides an important competitor to dairy. But all horticulture needs access to reliable water.

We only need to look at Tasmania to see how a stable water supply can unfurl vegetable growth. In the island's southeast an irrigation project is transforming a parched region.

It is one of 10 commissioned irrigation schemes in Tasmania's billion-dollar programme called Tasmanian Irrigation (TI). TI is a state-owned company which develops, owns and operates irrigation schemes across the state. In this usually dry area farmers are producing cauliflowers, lettuce and herbs. Many of these are sold as value-added salads. Other farmers are converting to organic beef. Water costs $2700 a mega-litre.

The Federal and Tasmanian governments committed $220 million in Tranche One of the project and $90 million to the five schemes in stage two. With farmers, TI works out how much water is needed then shares the cost of building a scheme.

Government recognises the community and region benefit economically and that employment grows. Private capital contributions are made through buying tradeable water entitlements. Operating costs are met by annual charges on entitlement holders and are not subsidised.

TI provides technical, financial and project management skills to progress schemes from concept through feasibility and construction to operations. New Zealand needs to recognise the benefits of better harnessing and managing our precious water in a more timely manner.

Central Plains Water, which opened Stage 1 of its scheme last month, is an example of New Zealand beginning to align with Tasmania in regard to its comprehensive freshwater infrastructure development, but much more is needed.

Ruataniwha, Hunter Downs, Hurunui Water Project and Wairarapa Water Storage Project are following on from Central Plains Water. Bar one or two criticisms from extremists, there is wide acceptance of these projects, which will bring jobs and wealth to struggling regional economies. Ruataniwha has half the required users signed up, with a further 40 per cent in the contracting process, so momentum is building. One last hurdle for the project will be the land swap for the water storage.

DoC forest parkland is to be exchanged for a greater area of higher biodiversity farmland, a win for conservation, so this should not be an issue.

Wairarapa Water Use Project has moved into its feasibility phase with Government funding. Hunter Downs has the required buy-in from shareholders and with Government funding is moving through the final stages of feasibility. Hurunui Water Project is on hold until its consents are issued. These are all positive signs.

Irrigation is an enabler for a diverse agricultural economy. It provides an opportunity to further expand our arable and horticultural industries -- crops, orchards and vineyards -- while continuing with the pastoral sector's growth in dairy, sheep, beef and deer through efficiently growing more grass per hectare. To do all of this we need a reliable water supply.

Andrew Curtis is chief executive of IrrigationNZ.

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