The driving forces behind a multimillion-dollar investigation of the potential for water storage in the Kaipara and Far North last month spent two days looking at how water had transformed marginal farm land into highly productive horticultural land in both districts.

Two initial studies, co-funded by the Northland Regional Council and central government, have already identified about 6300ha of land, some of which may be suitable for conversion to high-value horticulture, in Kaipara as part of a water supply scheme, along with 1600ha south of Kaikohe and 1700ha to the west of Lake Ōmāpere.

NRC chair Penny Smart said, overall, Northland had a lot of water, but unfortunately not always at the right time.

"A lot of it comes at once, and at its heart, the project is about collecting water and making it available when it's needed," she said.

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The project recently reached an important pre-feasibility demand assessment and design stage, which has seen major Northland land holders contacted to gather information needed to answer key questions, including what water could be used for given local soil types, land profile and climate.

As well as assessing water user/grower demand, the prefeasibility stage, which has a budget of up to $3 million, is also looking at where and how water could be collected, stored and distributed.

Initial indications are that with the availability of a secure water supply, horticulture and supporting industry could ultimately create hundreds of jobs and boost Northland's economy by tens of millions annually, potential that earned the project an $18.5m boost from the Provincial Growth Fund in July.

At a local level, the regional council is leading the project in collaboration with the Far North and Kaipara District councils and Northland Inc.

Cr Smart said the true value of water to horticulture could be difficult to grasp by just seeing reports and taking part in discussion. Therefore, to aid understanding of what water potentially allowed, the council had organised two field trips to look at horticulture operations in the Far North (including the Aupōuri Peninsular and Kerikeri), and at Tapora, near Wellsford.

Forty-six people in total had attended over the two days, including land owners, farmers, tangata whenua and government staff.

"The field trips were a definite eye-opener for some, who saw first-hand how land that had been considered 'marginal at best' for farming had been transformed by water into highly-productive horticulture," Cr Smart said, adding that technology and innovation were at the forefront in managing water use, costs and sustainability, the latter a key consideration in Northland, where any local economic growth needed to be environmentally and culturally sensitive.

Water, she said, was just one of the components, albeit a key one, to transforming land.

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"The market for horticultural produce is growing worldwide, however the level of investment needed for large land transformation is considerable," she added.

Elsewhere in New Zealand high-value horticultural land was being lost to subdivision, making land development options in Northland more appealing, "and, of course, along with land and water, having a pool of workers to employ is also critical to success."

Ultimately, any change in land use for water storage/use would need to fit with the four wellbeings - social, economic, environmental and cultural - that all councils were required to allow for.

"Environmental sustainability and enhancement will be crucial, as will a willingness to adopt emerging sustainable land use technologies," she concluded.

■Information about the project was available at www.nrc.govt.nz/your-council/economic-development/water-storage-and-use-project/, and there would be further opportunities for land owners to talk to horticulture and land conversion experts early this year.