John Donkers: Farming sector working hard to clean up its act

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Irrigation schemes can collect and distribute a small amount of New Zealand's abundant water resource with far-reaching benefits. Photo / Simon Baker
Irrigation schemes can collect and distribute a small amount of New Zealand's abundant water resource with far-reaching benefits. Photo / Simon Baker

Despite reports, comments and rhetoric on how farmers are destroying New Zealand's waterways, a step change has occurred within the primary sector and farmers who are responsible for 70 per cent of exports are putting their own earnings into sorting out the problems of the past for the benefit of all.

In March, New Zealand exported $1 billion more than it imported, largely due to agriculture. This surplus flows back into the country, making primary production one of the most powerful ways for New Zealanders to achieve higher per capita GDP. This means that understanding the level of environmental performance that can be expected of farmers without jeopardising output or driving farmers off the land is critical.

A balance between profit and environmental sustainability is being achieved. Many farmers have regularly audited environment plans on their farms; are excluding stock from waterways; have invested significantly in new irrigation precision technologies; are being regulated on water takes; are spending millions on irrigation pipe upgrades; and are sticking to nutrient allocation limits.

Irrigation can help achieve these fragile balances because environmental impacts can be managed as part of the scheme's design plan from the get-go. Large-scale, robustly developed and environmentally rigorous irrigation schemes can collect and distribute a small amount of New Zealand's abundant water resource with far-reaching benefits. Less than 2 per cent of water that lands in New Zealand is stored and New Zealand has twice as much of its water below ground (much of it accessible) and 100 times more above ground than the global average.

If this water is cleverly and sustainably stored and distributed during dry periods it could future-proof New Zealand's agricultural sector and thus its economy.

More than this, off-river infrastructure is key to protecting New Zealand's unique river ecosystems. Large-scale dams like Ruataniwha and Opuha have been designed to underpin river flows and allow for the river to be "flushed" through large water releases, clearing algae buildup during periods of low flow.

Generations past have significantly altered New Zealand's landscape. Much of the foothills and plains have been irreversibly changed through drainage and flood protection schemes put in place to protect towns and enhance prime agricultural land. Initiatives such as Ruataniwha in Hawkes Bay, that are able to store and release water for the environment, are critical if we are to enhance summer flows and combat climate change predictions.

Water from irrigation also underpins domestic supply and brings revenue and jobs to rural districts. Central Plains Water will bring in over $1 billion to the Canterbury regional economy and create over 1000 jobs. In the Lower Waitaki region, an 8000ha irrigated area has seen $92 million worth of increased revenue to the district and 330 new jobs.

Irrigation accounts for over 20 per cent of agricultural exports from just 6 per cent of New Zealand's productive land. And not all of irrigation supports dairy - horticulture, viticulture and high-value seed exports are not possible without irrigation. We produce 50 per cent of the world's radish seeds and 30 per cent of the world's carrot seeds. And wine exports are also experiencing record highs.

As in most developed agricultural nations, water storage and irrigation in New Zealand should be a given. There is a way to have our cake and eat it too.

Farmers understand the tensions between economic, social and environmental imperatives better than most. And credence needs to be given to the fact that they are not re-enforcing the status quo. Farmers are taking responsibility and shaping a new legacy which diminishes the environmental footprint by actively helping determine the future, which is a prosperous and sustainable one for all of New Zealand.

John Donkers is Irrigation New Zealand's chairman.

- NZ Herald

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