As summer water restrictions start to bite, proponents of the proposed Central Hawke's Bay water storage project welcomed yesterday's announcement of a bridging fund to encourage investment in regional water storage and irrigation projects.
A Crown-owned company will invest until the private sector takes over.
Eighty million dollars is available for the first year, with $400 million on offer in the medium term.
Projects in Hawke's Bay, Canterbury, Otago, and Nelson/Tasman are the first likely to benefit.
The Hawke's Bay Regional Council's investment company is in the consent phase of the Ruataniwha Plains Water Storage Project, which has the potential to open up 25,000ha of land for intensive farming in Central Hawke's Bay, at the same time improving minimum water flows in the Tukituki River.
The scheme includes a dam and a reservoir twice the size of Wellington's CBD on the Makaroro River.
A final decision is expected early next year, as long as the Environmental Protection Authority considers it of national significance.
From his Te Pohue farm, Hawke's Bay and national Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills said both environmentalists and farmers should applaud the government's funding.
"It was over 30 degrees outside and the pasture I was looking at is brown," he said.
"The last significant rainfall we had here was before Christmas, but I am not complaining - this is farming on the East Coast.
"In saying that, it highlights the big two opportunities we have with water storage, the economic and the environmental.
"The best way to keep nutrients and soil on our farms and out of water is green living grass. It is really that simple.
"Farms like mine have dams, but they can only last so long. In winter, when you see our rivers over-capacity, you ask why this cannot be stored for use when we hit a dry spell, like now."
He said the government was giving farmers a hand up, not a hand-out, that would benefit the wider economy.
"Economic analysis indicates farm output in the Hawke's Bay will rise by $160 million each year with farm value-added increasing by $70 million.
"That last amount includes additional household income worth $24 million each year.
"An additional 632 fulltime-equivalent jobs will be created and we are just talking about one project.
"These are real green jobs, because that is the colour of the grass it will grow."
Both Craig Foss, MP for Tukituki, and Chris Tremain, MP for Napier, welcomed the announcement.
Mr Tremain said: "The development of well-designed storage and irrigation infrastructure has the potential to deliver significant economic growth for our primary industries right here in the Bay.
"That will support new jobs, create confidence and encourage growth.
"The benefits are huge across the region and across the country."
Fish and Game's Hawke's Bay regional manager Pete McIntosh said his organisation had never been opposed to the scheme, but had reservations about water quality after increased land intensification, especially nitrogen in ground water.
"We are for a more prosperous Hawke's Bay - but not at all costs," he said.
Building the dam before there were farmers willing to buy into it was "arse about face".
"A lot of farmers are saying it is way too expensive for them to buy into, so they are looking at their own on-farm water storage.
"On-farm storage is something that has been overlooked by the council."