Editorial: Sharing water's benefits

A Waikato Regional Council report in 2004 noted that the province had few areas where rainfall was not plentiful enough to enable farming. Even so, it said irrigation enabled farmers to have increased and consistent grass growth, which provided more consistent incomes (although it foresaw demand exceeding the availability of water by around 2020).

But Waikato won't be among the immediate beneficiaries of $80 million of funding to be channelled into regional water storage and distribution schemes through a new Crown company announced this week. The new company is intended to be a minority and relatively short-term investor in feasible, affordable and profitable irrigation schemes.

The announcement should have caused no surprise. The 2011 Budget allocated $35m over five years for a fund to support the development of irrigation infrastructure proposals to the "investment-ready" prospectus stage.

NZIER research buttressed the initiative, suggesting the fund could support 340,000 hectares of new irrigation, which could boost exports by $1.4 billion a year by 2018, rising to $4b a year by 2026.

Several groups since then have been developing proposals for large regional-level schemes. Projects in Canterbury, Otago, Nelson and Hawke's Bay are the most likely candidates for help this year.

Whether taxpayers should pay for farmers and growers' water schemes is a good question. But costs can run into millions of dollars, and regional economies - not just the farmers and growers - share the benefits.

A contrary consideration is that irrigators pocket the profits while taxpayers are left to pick up the tab for cleaning up waterways when - as seems likely - they become further degraded by new farming operations.

Claims to be concerned about keeping "an appropriate balance" would be more credible if the Government hadn't decided last year to stop producing the five-yearly State of the Environment Report. Checking the balance becomes much harder when one of the monitoring screens has been switched off.