Opinion: We should no longer be afraid of the conversation about water storage, dams, and reservoirs in the right places, as they are necessary for a sustainable, inclusive, productive and decarbonised economy, chief executive of Irrigation NZ Vanessa Winning writes.
It has been hot, very hot, especially in the central north island, Canterbury, Nelson, and Otago areas.
Then it was cool – still dry for most of us, but temperatures dropped a minimum of 10 degrees in the space of 24 hours in the height of summer.
Southerlies have settled into the lower North Island and we may get a storm next week in the South. Climate scientists tell us that these swings are expected to get more extreme all year round.
I was on a Zoom call with some of my team this week – one in Timaru, one in Oamaru, one in Wellington and I was in the Waikato – I had a 30 degree day, Timaru was wrapped up in a jacket, Oamaru had a hot water bottle, and Wellington, well we all know about Wellington. And this is not unusual.
And all of this has an impact on food production, which relies on water; water often taken from our rivers which are themselves impacted by the increasing and more intense weather fluctuations between rain, snow and dry spells.
Then couple this with the recent report from the Climate Commission*, and a call to move some productive land from animal agriculture into horticulture, and the reliance on water is only going to increase.
Water at the right time of the year is critical for growing fruit and vegetables.
As the climate changes, we are seeing places where traditionally water has been available naturally, in sync with the growing cycle, that are now having too much rain at the wrong time and not enough at others, with consequences on fruit size and volume.
The more we want to move our productive sector from pastural-based activity, the more we are going to need precision irrigation to support it.
Currently about 7 per cent of our farmland is under irrigation – with more fruit and vegetables, that water per productive hectare will only need to be higher, especially during critical growth months.
While there has been a definite increase in the focus on water infrastructure, harvest, storage and capture in the past few months with local and central government – be that due to the issues in infrastructure in the cities, an increased understanding of the value of water for food production, or discussions about basic drinking water – we are decades behind in development.
Relying on councils to provide the funding is flawed, the income they earn from rates, especially smaller regions, will not cover the billions of dollars required to fix and build the necessary water infrastructure.
An income sharing option with GST could be looked at and would help the bigger townships, but will still leave the smaller centres without the required resources to improve the water infrastructure required.
And it's too simple to say that we need more dams of the Clyde scale, or that large scale schemes are the way to go - we need a long, hard strategic look at the way we invest to ensure we de-risk our country against the changing climate and ensure we have safe and reliable drinking water and infrastructure to provide water security for multiple purposes.
We need a whole of community solution – drinking water, waste water and storm water need to be considered - as well as the productive economy.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Vanessa Winning on The Country below:
Hydro-electric opportunities also need to be considered if we are going to achieve our decarbonisation goals and reduce the price of electricity.
There is going to need to be a mix of large and smaller scale capture and storage options - and those investments that meet the holistic, multiple and inclusive needs of the community and have less impact on the environment - will be the ones that get the green light.
An "all of community" solution will require more consultation and community engagement because like most things, the things that benefit the community benefit the country as a whole.
But it needs to begin now.
It is critical for us to think about investment in water storage and act quickly to get it in place where we need it across the country in areas which will be most vulnerable to weather fluctuations, and particularly drought, like the East Coast, and the North.
This will not only facilitate changes in land use to horticulture as recommended by the Climate Commission, but it will also prevent a collapse in our current productive sector, protect our regional communities, and indeed the wellbeing of all of us.
Potentially storage can also be used to help provide hydroelectricity if done well, and further support decarbonisation.
With the right environmental regulation in place, such as the National Policy Statement and National Environmental Standard for Freshwater; with consensus on what our emissions targets are for the primary sector; and a shared vision for what our future economy looks like - we should no longer be afraid of the conversation about water storage, dams, and reservoirs in the right places.
They are necessary for a sustainable, inclusive, productive and decarbonised economy.
The need for water investment is well past its due date.
* The move suggested in the Climate Change Commission report does need to be cautioned against the growing worldwide demand for highly nutritious food; therefore, animal agriculture's unique qualities will continue to be key component of New Zealand farming in the future, even if the desire is to reduce overall stock numbers where possible. If it is also about moving where stock are located, or mixed farm types, again we come back to the importance of water infrastructure investment for reliable access.