Irrigation benefits stack up for dry summers

BRUCE WILLS
Last updated 08:26 05/06/2013

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To export primary produce, from trees to cheese, we need water.

OPINION: That is the simple truth underpinning the Ruataniwha Dam project in the Hawke's Bay, along with others like it.

Some have raised concerns Ruataniwha will not be financially viable or environmentally sustainable and that it will suffer from lack of demand.

To answer these criticisms, the Hawke's Bay Regional Council has consistently put publicly accessible information on to its website.

The large-scale storage of water isn't a new concept because towns and cities do that with "town water".

Federated Farmers strongly supports water storage for farming, as well as Ruataniwha, in principle.

Our final backing awaits the final business case; then and only then will we know if it is financially viable.

The last big water storage scheme to open for farming was South Canterbury's Opuha Dam.

Opuha opened in 1998. It came about because of the same issues we have here - a lack of reliable water over summer.

Today, Opuha irrigates farmland, supplies town water and generates electricity.

It also provides permanent flow to the formerly "summer-dry" Opihi River, offering recreational, tourism and environmental opportunities.

In drought-proofing South Canterbury, Opuha has vindicated every promise made about it. Yet Opuha only came about due to the perseverance of a small band of believers spanning two decades.

From a pure bottom line perspective, the latest report I read says farm revenues could rise by $160 million each year including $25m for households.

Ruataniwha could generate 630 new jobs, with an additional 530 much-needed jobs predicted down the line.

Ruataniwha would potentially free Central Hawke's Bay from the annual rainfall lottery.

The dam will have the capacity to irrigate 25,000 hectares while generating 6.5 megawatts of electricity - enough to supply more than 3000 households with clean renewable energy.

Where exactly are the downsides?

Much of the criticism revolves around low take-up due to the cost and that dairying will be the only land use able to afford it.

A council report from November 2010 put the on-farm investment at $7394-$9428 per hectare. In the September 2012 report, the on-farm water distribution cost is between 20c and 30c per cubic metre.

But can farmers like me afford not to irrigate?

Current water takes are prone to summer irrigation bans, highlighting the absolute need for reliable water when those bans affect 200 consent holders.

Macfarlane Rural Business predicts irrigation will be taken up by dairy (37 per cent), arable farming (32 per cent), and sheep and beef (13 per cent).

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Other land uses, like horticulture, will likely fill the balance.

Reliable water may see distinct "farm types" blur along with better farming practices to optimise income per hectare.

Irrigation keeps pastures green, and green pasture means soils and valuable nutrients stay on-farm and out of water.

Budget 2013 estimated this year's drought will shave 0.7 per cent off the nation's economy - upwards of $2 billion.

Having run a calculation on my sheep and beef farm, using the costs above, it seemingly stacks up.

Farmers like me would likely irrigate a portion of a farm creating a "pasture factory", if you like.

This means we can keep stock on-farm rather than destocking in dry summers.

This means I can send stock at the optimum time rather than being forced into it by a lack of feed or water.

Drought is a fact of life; it has happened before and it will happen again.

Ruataniwha potentially means we can farm through it and doing that benefits all.

Bruce Wills is the president of Federated Farmers.

- Waikato Times

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