Comment: Water is one of our nation's critical strategic assets, perhaps second only behind our people. Therefore water storage is essential for ensuring we have a thriving primary sector for years to come, writes National's Agriculture spokesman Todd Muller.

Water will be the currency of success in the next century.

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In the 19th century it was coal, in the 20th century it was oil and in my view in the 21st century it is water.

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We are a tradeable economy and water is a critical strategic asset in developing our commodities. The ability to store it will be a key infrastructural necessity if we are to leverage the value of water over the next few decades.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding irrigation in recent years has been well off the mark, and it's immensely disappointing to see the impact this has had on people's opinions.

Many see irrigation as a simple extension of dairy farming rather than the valuable production tool and environmental aid it can be.

While irrigation is indeed important for dairy farming, in reality only approximately 50 per cent of irrigated land in New Zealand is used for dairy farming.

The environmental benefits of irrigation are many and should be celebrated when we discuss water storage.

In previous droughts, Fish and Game have rescued fish from dried up rivers to put them into rivers fed by irrigation. Many irrigation schemes can boost recharging aquifers as farmers move to more precise approaches.

Done well, water storage delivers on environmental, social and economic factors equally.

There are clear environmental benefits, such as increased river flows, often improvement to local drinking water supplies which is a social benefit, plus the obvious economic activity water storage enables.

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We've seen a notable decrease in large irrigation projects getting off the ground since the Coalition Government came into power, with those that have progressed being a result of the National Government's work.

Most notably the Waimea Dam has produced enormous benefits for the West Coast with increased river flows and recharged aquifers. The dam also helps futureproof the region by allowing conversion from unirrigated pasture to higher value crops.

This is essential for the future of New Zealand. Water provides important land use flexibility and helps farmers respond to regulatory challenges over time.

Listen to Jamie Mackay's interview with Todd Muller on The Country below:

Marlborough was once covered in large swathes of sheep and arable farming, but since then it has transformed into one of the most well-known sauvignon blanc producers in the world.

Attempting changes like this require a significant amount of water, and having adequate water storage is key. The current Government has been eager to talk about the opportunities for changing land use in our primary sector, but they don't realise what it takes to achieve this.

The Government's recent fresh water proposals require a resource consent for all new irrigation over 10 hectares, and a requirement of this resource consent be that no increase in nitrogen or phosphorus occur.

This is going to make it substantially harder to grow our avocados, cherries and apricots, all industries that offer great opportunities for communities in places like Central Otago, Northland and East Coast.

Even if growers believe they will reduce pollutants, a resource consent process can be expensive and unpredictable, while Overseer is not well set-up to understand land uses other than pasture farming.

Water storage requires long term investment partners and in most countries such schemes are supported by federal or state equity or sponsorship.

New Zealand is sorely lacking this currently as the Coalition Government abolished Crown Irrigation Investments Ltd. A decision that I think was short-sighted and ideological to the extreme.

The previous National Government worked hard to continually upgrade our water storage infrastructure in New Zealand, we committed $280 million towards irrigation and water storage projects because of the economic and environmental benefits of storing and using water.

In total we committed to $400 million being made available over time.

National's Agriculture spokesman Todd Muller. Photo / George Novak
National's Agriculture spokesman Todd Muller. Photo / George Novak

Going forward we're working on comprehensive water storage policy to take into the next election.

We think there needs to be a much bigger focus from Central Government to act as an enabler partly in funding, and partly in confidently stating stored waters place in our future.

Water is one of our nation's critical strategic assets, perhaps second only behind our people.

We need to be planning for our future and investing in infrastructure that is going to ensure we have a thriving primary sector for years to come.