The problem isn’t that New Zealand’s running out of water, it’s that water is running out of New Zealand.
This is Federated Farmers’ line and they’re right.
We have the soils and temperatures to make us the most efficient producers of food in the world. What lots of land with huge potential for primary production lacks is rain, but what many of those areas do have is rivers which could be used for irrigation.
Some already are. Some of those have no more water to allocate without compromising the health of the rivers and that of the fish and other species which live in them.
But other rivers still have water to spare and even some of those which are fully allocated might have excess water at times if it could be diverted into dams.
Some people believe that rivers should be left to flow from the mountains to the sea untouched. But if you accept that using some for irrigation is okay, the way to do it with the least impact on the water way is to store it during periods of high flow.
On the east coast that is usually during the spring snow melt but there are other occasions when rain in the mountains leads to high flows. This can be good for the health of the river, clearing out weed and debris but during floods there is still some to spare which could be diverted into dams.
That is however, much easier said than done and I’m not just talking about the engineering and other practical challenges. There are also major political hurdles.
When we applied to take water from the Kakanui River to supplement an existing dam on our property it took more than two years and many thousands of dollars to get resource consent. And that was only for a secondary take which would have no impact on existing irrigators.
People trying to develop larger, community irrigation schemes face higher hurdles, more expense and longer delays. The government’s tidying up of the Resource Management Act will help reduce some of the problems but it’s not just the impact on the rivers which upsets some people.
The opposition to the applications for the large dairying operations in the Mackenzie basin is not just to the possible impacts of intensive animal farming on a fragile environment. Some of it has been directed at irrigation in general.
Requiring irrigators to use water efficiently without damaging soils or water ways is fair enough. That is why the North Otago Irrigation Company requires all of its shareholders to have an environmental farm plan which is independently audited each year.
But telling people they can’t irrigate because green isn’t natural in a brown landscape is the triumph of emotion over fact.
Drought isn’t good for fragile landscapes either. With irrigation the Mackenzie hills will still be brown and we’ll have a better view of them if the flats aren’t blowing away in a dust storm.
This was first published in the ODT’s Paddock Talk on 22.2.10.