Irrigation delays add millions to costs

A High Court decision has brought the prospect of irrigation water a step closer for drought-stricken farmers in the Hawarden district, North Canterbury, but years of delays have added millions to the cost, farmer Mark Zino tells Tony Benny.

Mark Zino moves sheep on his drought-stricken Hawarden, North Canterbury, farm.
Tony Benny

Mark Zino moves sheep on his drought-stricken Hawarden, North Canterbury, farm.

Brothers Mark and Sam Zino are recognised leaders in the New Zealand sheep industry, named suppliers of the year by Beef + Lamb NZ in 2014, and they're expert at farming in a dry climate. But as their district enters its second straight year of drought, even they are struggling.

They had their first significant rain in a year a week or so ago when 50mm fell.

"We're pretty chuffed with that.  It hasn't made a difference yet but you can see it will," Mark says.

The effects of unrelenting drought show on the hills on Mark and Sam Zino's Hawarden farm.
Tony Benny

The effects of unrelenting drought show on the hills on Mark and Sam Zino's Hawarden farm.

"We hadn't tipped an inch of rain in 24 hours out of the gauge for well over a year," he adds, looking out from his house over bare, parched paddocks.  "This rain has only wet the top four inches. If you go out there and dig a hole, you can go down for two metres and you won't find anything, it's just powdery dry."

He says after months of drought, he and his family had to get away for a break and while they were on holiday in Benmore he kept ringing home to find out if there'd been any rain.

"We were struggling.  It's not the end of it but at least it's a good start.

"But the reality is we can't keep farming in these drought situations because it's no good for anyone.  It's no good for us, no good for the economy, no good for the businesses that rely on these farms."

 "We haven't tipped an inch of rain in 24 hours out of the gauge for well over a year," Mark says, looking out from his house over bare, parched paddocks.  "If you go out there and dig a hole, you can go down for two metres and you won't find anything, it's just powdery dry.

"The reality is we can't keep farming in these drought situations because it's no good for anyone.  It's no good for us, no good for the economy, no good for everybody that's attached to these farms."

The Zinos know what irrigation could mean to farmers in the district, with 120ha of their 1060ha property under a centre pivot and long-line irrigation.  That green circle stands out in a landscape where most paddocks are dusty brown with virtually nothing growing on them.

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They have consent for a small sub-surface take from the Waitohi River that flows past their farm, though most years the river disappears underground in summer and irrigation is only 50 to 80 per cent reliable.

"We've got a little bit of irrigation now and I guess that's why I'm so passionate about it. I can see the benefit."

While most farmers in the Hawarden and Waikari districts are sending most of their lambs away as stores this season – if they can find takers – the Zinos plan on finishing all of theirs to fill their contracts with Anzco Foods. 

'Because we have such good finishing contracts we'll probably finish our lambs under irrigation and look for grazing for our ewes.

"We're pretty good at what we do in terms of consistency so for us it's a bit of a no-brainer. You're talking a huge difference between store prices and what we get paid, it's a lot more than the market realises it is," Mark says.

Not keen to reveal exactly what they get paid for their lambs, he admits it's "pretty much" twice what store lambs are fetching at present, a little under $60.

He had high hopes that when consent was granted in 2013 for a new irrigation scheme, taking water from the Hurunui River and its tributaries, the curse of droughts in the district would soon be a thing of a past. 

But instead there were to be two years of delay for the Hurunui Water Project, with the process held up in the Environment Court.

HWP first applied for consents in 2009 but that original proposal, which involved building a weir and managing the level of Lake Sumner at the head of the Hurunui River and building a dam in the south branch of the Hurunui to store water, met strong opposition.

Irrigation proposals in the district were then put on hold when a moratorium was imposed to allow the new Canterbury Water Management Strategy to bed in and give the freshly established local zone committee time to come up with a plan for water in the Hurunui and Waiau River catchments to be used in ways that would suit everyone - environmentalists, recreational users, iwi and irrigators.

The  zone committee, comprising community members, council appointees and  rūnanga representatives, ruled out raising Lake Sumner but did allow for irrigation takes from the wider Hurunui catchment. 

In 2011 HWP submitted a revised proposal, based on storage in the Waitohi River, a tributary of the Hurunui.  Consent was granted by Environment Canterbury in 2013.

It appeared the way was now clear for the planning and construction of a new irrigation scheme, but farmers' celebrations were short-lived. 

Their near neighbour and HWP shareholder, the Amuri Irrigation Company, appealed the consents because it was concerned the newly-introduced nutrient loads specified in the consents might affect its existing scheme to the north of the Hurunui River.

They were joined by Ngai Tahu Property, major landowners in the area and also HWP shareholders, and their appeal went to the Environment Court.

Under court meditation provisions, the parties were able to hammer out a compromise and agreed the appeal should be withdrawn, but to their surprise Environment Court judge Jon Jackson refused to accept the withdrawal of the appeal  and wanted to hear it.

HWP and Environment Canterbury appealed to the High Court against the Environment Court's decision and in early December their appeal was allowed. It meant ECan could grant all the consents applied for.

The way was finally clear for planning and construction of a new scheme that could irrigate more than 40,000ha of some of New Zealand's most drought-prone, yet fertile, farmland.

As chairman of the HWP farmer liaison committee, Mark Zino is excited at the prospect that more of their farm could be irrigated and that other farmers could also benefit.  But he's frustrated by the drawn-out, expensive process.

"The disappointing thing is that we've spent $11 million and we've only got this far. This is the worst drought on record.  The whole point of this irrigation scheme was to protect ourselves from these droughts," he says. 

"We all knew something like this drought was going to happen one day and that's the frustration. We invested the money but we got stuck in a process that was an absolute shambles, really."

He says the goalposts kept being moved as central government formulated its national freshwater policy and that caused delays and added costs.  "You don't treat people this way.

"Environment Canterbury did a pretty good job working with us but the actual process is the problem. I've got nothing nice to say about it, to be honest."

The good news is that the delay has given time to explore more, potentially cheaper, storage options in other tributaries of the Hurunui

"The Waitohi Valley is a storage site at the moment but there's also the Glenrae, which is a river on the north bank of the Hurunui, and that's quite exciting – there's enough water in it to do a significant area."

Even so, the water won't be cheap and the delays have added to the cost.  While the original proposed scheme could have been built for an estimated $4500/ha, that's now climbed to between $7000 to $9000/ha.

"That's a massive difference and that's just for water storage and delivery.  On top of that is your on-farm stuff at $6000 to $8000/ha." 

But despite the cost, Mark reckons it will be worth it, with farmers guaranteed to be able to grow feed and get the most from their farms. 

"If you talk to your banker, one of the important things they want is consistency and if you've got irrigation, you can almost put a date around it, whereas in a dryland environment it's a wee bit hit-and-miss."

He doesn't expect the district to convert to dairy farming when the water arrives, as has happened in other parts of Canterbury.

"We don't want to see wall-to-wall cows.  It's never been about every farmer in this area wanting to be a dairy farmer and the reality is a lot of the land is too good for cows. 

"You could grow anything you like if you just had some water on it – it could be seed crops, it could be vegetables, it could be a revitalised red meat sector, it could  be anything.  We've got heat units during the day, there's no doubt about that."

But he warns that the more it costs to get irrigation, the fewer choices farmers have on what they do with it. Under the original, cheaper, proposal, farmers would have had a lot of options, including carrying on as sheep farmers, but as costs have increased, those options have decreased.

"It's crazy for environmentalists to think that having to pay extra for water storage is a better environmental solution when the reality is it's probably not better for the environment because we'll end up creating a monoculture of either cows or a speciality seed crop which no-one wants to see."

He believes irrigation will be good for the whole district and instead of slowly dying, the small towns of Hawarden and Waikari could in future thrive again, like neighbouring towns where the surrounding farms have water.

"You just have to look at the growth in Culverden in the last 10 years – two garages, new buildings for stock firms, two vets, milking system outfits, irrigation companies, three engineering shops. If we got water, we'd be like Culverden."

First, there's an estimated $6 million to be spent on design and engineering work, taking about two years, and all going well water could be delivered within four years. Under the original proposal the project could have been designed and construction-ready for $10m; to get to that point now will be closer to $17m.

He hopes it will be a community scheme where the benefits are shared and cautions Amuri Irrigation or Ngai Tahu against developing a scheme more for their own benefit rather than for the whole community.

"The community expects a community solution, not a solution that suits those two parties alone. There'll be a wee bit of negotiation to find that but everybody has to benefit."

 - Stuff

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