Recent reports on local issues in Hawke's Bay Today have been of particular interest.

On July 2 Hawke's Bay Regional Council (HBRC) acting group manager asset management Gary Clode advised some Rissington residents that "occupying a flood plain is inherently risky" but some help could be offered when staff and machinery are available.

Residents must, however, pay for any protection work.

Then came the news that the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme (RWSS) intellectual property paid for by HBRC ratepayers at a cost of between $14 million and $20m had been sold to Water Holdings Central Hawke's Bay for $100,000 with the aim to revive investigation of the scheme.


This was followed on July 6 with ex-Labour MP Bill Sutton backing another look at the dam provided ratepayers (read "councillors") valued the economic and environmental potential enough to contribute more ratepayer money to supplement the private investment.

All this on the premise that no other option can produce economic and environmental benefits that a dam could provide. This premise is of course wrong but one which the "more production equals more profit" farm business lobbies (and HBRC) continue to cling to.

Sutton lists "economics, environmental and conservatory" benefits as requirements that can be met, again without acknowledging that options other than irrigation can be even more beneficial. Almost all commentators on the RWSS fail to realise that each of these benefits are dependent upon the other.

Certainly the economics of the dam are based on highly ambitious figures for all aspects (capital and on-going costs, water supply, response to water and increased income from increased production) and earlier reports from both the BNZ and agricultural consultant Peter Fraser put the true cost of the water at 46-50 cents per cubic metre v a price to farmers of 27c.

The difference is the contribution from ratepayers for benefits to rivers and the environment.

A water tax of 2c/cubic metre of water (1000 litres) mooted by Labour pre-election was slated by Federated Farmers and Irrigation NZ as condemning irrigators to insolvency, yet they somehow forgot that RWSS irrigators at a ratepayer-subsidised 27c would apparently be profitable enough to transform the region's economy!

So although the economics are questionable, the flow-on effects of intensification with irrigation are quite clear. Irrigated pasture needs extra nitrogen and phosphate, extra stock to eat this pasture, extra bought-in feed when irrigated pasture is no longer contributing and extra infrastructure to cater for the higher numbers.

All these increase nitrogen leaching (by more than 100 per cent) and phosphate runoff.


Farm environmental management plans (FEMPs) may seem to offer ways to "mitigate" such increases but other regional councils are already applying environmental limits which effectively rule out such intensification and use of feed lots. The increased risk of spreading infectious disease in intensive systems will also become an important factor in requiring simpler and less risky (environment, economics, disease) farm systems.

In this case economics and environment are linked and if you get the economics right, the environment will follow. Currently the economic model of farming to boost production is not only wrong, it has been shown to be wrong by modelling, recent research and commercial farm results.

But no option other than irrigation was considered during the whole RWSS process. If 5 per cent of the original RWSS money had been invested in a more committed examination of alternatives, the region would already be a far better place both economically and environmentally.

So perhaps HBRC should note Gary Clode's advice to Rissington residents and adapt the message to the small number of Central Hawke's Bay farmers who access most of the water:
"Intensive agriculture using expensive irrigation on inappropriate soils, and with inappropriate climatic conditions, is inherently risky."

But I would go further and say " ... is inherently stupid when compared to other options which have proved to be both economically and environmentally more beneficial".

Barrie Ridler has been a manager on dairy farms and owner/operator of a 5000 SU sheep and beef farm spanning 25 years. He's also a former senior lecturer and researcher in agricultural economics and farm management at Massey University.