Why do we need irrigation?
Irrigation is not just a question of economic stimulation, increased farm incomes, more jobs, growth of our cities and creation of wealth (so we can afford to clean up our already degraded rivers and streams). The reason is far simpler.
- World food production will need to double in the next 50 years.
- Twenty per cent of world's agricultural land is irrigated to produce 40 per cent of world's food.
- By 2030, world fresh water demand will exceed supply by 40 per cent.
- By 2030 more than 3.5 billion people will face acute water scarcity.
- Temperature increases and changes in climate patterns are predicted to severely reduce world grain and rice production.
Join the dots. The world needs more food. New Zealand is blessed by ample rain so water storage, irrigation and land-use intensification is essential.
So what are the barriers - and how do we overcome them?
Potential expansion lies primarily with five large proposed projects, the Hurunui scheme and the second stage of the Central Plains project in Canterbury, the Waimea Community Dam in the Tasman District, the Ruataniwha scheme in Hawke's Bay and the Water Wairarapa project. All projects face the same barriers: lack of money, consenting delay and over-control.
Water storage is a big-ticket item. The smallest project comes in at about $70 million and larger ones more than $300 million, excluding on-farm costs.
Investigating feasibility and proving viability is also costly. Practically, it is hard for the irrigators to fund them and service the debt without outside assistance and/or major increases in food prices. Government funding for feasibility studies and funding of schemes as a minority short-term investor is not sufficient. Obtaining private-sector funding and keeping operating costs at an economic level for farmers is also proving difficult on large-scale proposals.
Expecting local government to be the majority funder in such high-cost infrastructure is unrealistic. It is hard to see how infrastructure on this scale can be funded without major government capital investment.
Only central government is in a position to fund projects on the basis of a far longer return on investment period than the private sector. Only government is in a position to target funding at environmental flow and environmental rehabilitation requirements, and plan for infrastructure requirements of this scale on a long-term basis.
Years can be spent going through a resource consent process for a major project at significant cost. As councils develop land and water plans that give clear directions as to how water is to be managed, it is becoming easier to determine what is required to make a proposal compliant.
The interface between the RMA process and disparate central government processes for the use of the Crown estate needs to be addressed urgently. It is not reasonable to have a project that has gone through a long, intensive and expensive consenting process effectively re-litigated in the context of subsequent objections to use of Crown land or parts of the conservation estate.
Our environment and river systems are already highly modified and in many areas degraded. We need to deal with future land-use in the context that people will continue to live and work in the environment.
Most of our issues are legacy issues and will cost money to fix. We need to set realistic standards that invite compliance.
Controls on groundwater discharges and leaching of nitrogen and phosphorus are essential and must be treated sensibly. It is important to determine what a healthy standard is for each river system and what is needed to achieve and maintain it. We need to start looking at water storage and land-use intensification as part of the solution.
Make no mistake, justifying irrigation because we need food is not all about mung beans and brown rice. I live in Napier and I want to see Hawke's Bay grow and prosper. I want my kids and their friends and my grandkids and their friends to have a future here.
I want to see water managed properly with existing degraded rivers and land areas restored by riparian plantings, development of wetlands and sensible management of areas with high landscape and environmental values.
I can also live with the inundation of riverbeds and small areas of the DoC estate when the conservation values of that area are already well represented, or where appropriate mitigation offsets or vesting of land in exchange can be achieved. Everything has its pros and cons but you have to look the big picture and what really matters.
- Peter Graham is special counsel to the Property Group Ltd based in Napier, and is a staunch supporter of the Ruataniwha water storage project. He is a nationally acknowledged legal guru specialising in public land issues, easements and other legal rights required for infrastructural projects.
- Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: email@example.com