COMMENT:

A few days after a vote to build the Waimea Community Dam was narrowly lost at a Tasman District Council meeting the response from politicians, a number of councillors and many around the country, seems to be shock.

The effects will kick in immediately as a plan change which requires Waimea River flows to be raised, drafted on the assumption the dam would go ahead, will mean water restrictions will be enforced in the district this summer.

In Auckland, both Watercare and the region's vegetable growers take water from the Waikato River. With the region's population booming, future conflict over water is also on the horizon. Decisions made at a local level, where a noisy opposition may be focused solely on their rates bill, have wider impacts on regions and in fact the whole country.

Advertisement

In Tasman, prior to the vote the council said that the district could be facing "third world" provisions with the scenario of people being supplied via water tankers as their best solution to drought years. In what is a water rich country, Tasman could be our very own Cape Town.

Commercial and residential growth will be stifled as no water means no new development. Tourism businesses could be in trouble too as the peak demand for water occurs in the height of summer which is also the busiest tourism season.

Already facing water cuts in excess of 30 per cent from this summer onwards, the growers who would have been connected to the dam issued a statement saying that without access to a reliable water source to grow their produce, many would be "re-evaluating" their future in Tasman. An earlier economic study by Northington Partners put the cost of not building the dam to the region at nearly $1 billion over the next 25 years.

Hawke's Bay is grappling with similar water issues. Last year we saw hundreds of residents take to the streets to protest a water conservation order which would severely cut the amount of water available to orchards and vineyards. The order would see water bans in place for several weeks quite regularly over summer. Without water, fruit trees are at risk of dying.

Heinz Watties has said that if the water conservation order goes ahead, and orchards can't keep producing fruit, their 1600 employees are at risk of losing their jobs. And in fact, much of the Hawke's Bay economy is reliant on its orchards and vineyards which drive the region's agriculture and tourism.

Again we had an infrastructural solution to this problem, the Ruataniwha Dam, which failed to progress after the project was halted as national legislation prevented a swap of conservation land.

Tasman and Hawke's Bay are our two largest apple growing regions. Hawke's Bay is a major wine producing region, and Tasman also grows berryfruit, lettuces, broccoli and cabbages.

Internationally, there is huge investment in water infrastructure going on. A combination of growing awareness of the effects of climate change, population growth and a recognition of the need for water security for economies and communities is driving this investment. The Australian federal Government has spent $15 billion over the past 15 years on water infrastructure and states have invested billions more. California voted to spend $7.5 billion on new reservoirs and dams.

Otago is another region with looming water issues as the regional council is now starting a process to set minimum river flows which is likely to result in less water for the region's orchardists and pastoral farmers.

All of these regional decisions have a flow on impact at a national level. The organisation representing the nation's growers, Horticulture NZ, has repeatedly said only a small percentage of land is suitable for fruit and vegetable production in New Zealand and if these areas do not have access to reliable water food production will reduce.

The need for consistent national policies on water and water infrastructure is agreed on by many people. Over 50 stakeholders have been involved in the Land and Water Forum from a range of backgrounds – environmental, farming, iwi, community and council representatives. The forum recommended in June that the Government create a Land and Water Commission to provide clear national policy.

We have seen the National Party indicate it is willing to take a bipartisan approach to climate change. We also need to see all of the major political parties act in the nation's best interests and agree on some common goals and objectives around water and water infrastructure.

Not everyone was upset by the Waimea Dam decision. Some residents celebrated that their rates wouldn't pay for the dam. There are alternative options to the dam but they are all more expensive and most produce considerably less water, so this celebration is short sighted.

With severe water restrictions on the way for the district, and the prospect of nearly $1b being removed from the district's economy, which will translate into fewer jobs and less money in the region, there are no winners from the impasse Tasman has reached now, only losers.

The Tasman and Hawke's Bay examples illustrate how smaller regions struggle to get major water infrastructure projects off the ground, with huge consequences for the region's people. It also illustrates how we badly need clear national policy on water infrastructure as well as some form of government support for water infrastructure projects to recognise their economic benefits to regions.

Andrew Curtis is chief executive of IrrigationNZ, a national not-for-profit organisation for farmers and growers who use irrigation. It provides training in efficient water use.