In defence of the dam

: What the Ruataniwha dam would look like
 

 Peter Graham is Special Counsel to the Property Group Limited based in Napier and is a staunch supporter of the controversial 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. 

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. 

Just consider:

  • World food production will need to double in the next 50 years to meet demand.
  • 20% of world’s agricultural land is irrigated to produce 40% of world’s food.
  • By 2030 world fresh water demand will exceed supply by 40%.
  • By 2030 more than 3.5 billion people will live in areas affected by acute water scarcity.
  • Temperature increases and changes in climate patterns are predicted to severely reduce world grain and rice production. 

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 cost. 

Money

Water storage is a big-ticket item. The smallest project comes in at around $70 million and larger more than $300 million, excluding on farm costs. Investigating proposal 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.   

Food is essential to a stable functioning society and we must look at irrigation as essential public infrastructure. We must consider its benefits in terms of regional development and food production, urban water supply and recreation use, not simply in terms of economics and income generation. 

The fallout from ‘Think Big’ may still cast a shadow over government economic policy and treasury advice, but now is time for vision coupled with clear and achievable objectives.  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. 

If the increasing demand for electricity had not been met by massive post war hydroelectric dam construction, New Zealand would be a very different place. If government hadn’t built infrastructure, New Zealand simply could not have supported post war population growth and the baby boom. The reality is that in New Zealand, very large infrastructure projects require greater government input than is presently available for irrigation projects. 

The regions and rural New Zealand need revitalisation. Environmental rehabilitation of rivers and wetlands and environmental protection of riparian margins needs to be paid for. Public Private Partnerships or suspensory loans, with repayment remitted on meeting of clear targets for job generation, increase of summer river flows, improvements to urban water supply, improvement of water quality and riparian and watershed protection, may be effective in ensuring irrigation schemes are not only economically viable, but that they also deliver wider community and environmental benefits.  

Consents

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 or able to be consented. Generally, it’s the time and cost of appeals that have been the major issues with the consenting process for irrigation projects. 

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. 

Classes and categories of conservation land need to be clearly established and realistic protection criteria clearly set out. The ability to obtain consent in conjunction with the RMA consent applications being dealt with is essential. This shouldn’t be controversial. 

Mitigation of effects requirements

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.   

Individual farm environmental plans and detailed records of water use, fertiliser application, and stocking rates is simply part of living in today’s environment, as is development of wetlands and fencing of riparian boundaries.  

However, regulating these plans and records must be achievable and effective. It is one thing to require detailed monitoring and reporting when the output has a real effect on water quality. It quite different to require the same level of on-farm monitoring and reporting when the level of discharges can be monitored and controlled simply by monitoring water quality in the river. 

We need to start looking at water storage and land use intensification as part of the solution and manage the environmental issues appropriately. It's as simple as that. 

The benefits

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 the Tukituki have strong environmental flows in the summer. I want to see all farms having individual environmental management plans and effective nutrient discharge limits and controls. 

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.   

So, it’s simple really:

  • Councils, who haven’t already done it, need to get their act together with the land and water management requirements in their plans and appropriate discharge and reporting limits.
  • Rules for use of the Crown estate need to be better co-ordinated with RMA consent requirements.
  • Better mechanisms for increased public finding of schemes focussed on clear targets for regional and environmental benefits, as well as increased food production need to be developed, or food costs will skyrocket.

 

 

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