No Waimea dam: I'm out, says long-time market gardener Mark O'Connor

Mark O'Connor with leeks, one of more than 30 varieties of vegetables grown by Waimea Plains-based Appleby Fresh.

Mark O'Connor with leeks, one of more than 30 varieties of vegetables grown by Waimea Plains-based Appleby Fresh.

For four generations, Mark O'Connor's family have been on the Waimea Plains. For the past three, they've been growing vegetables.

But the Appleby Fresh managing director says if there's no Waimea dam, he will consider subdividing some of the land and selling up.

"We actually had a meeting the other day and said what are we going to do if we don't get the dam and I said: 'I'm out of it; it's too hard to farm without having water'," he said.

The Waimea River and the patchwork beauty of the productive Waimea Plains.

The Waimea River and the patchwork beauty of the productive Waimea Plains.

For O'Connor, the dam means a secure supply of water for the myriad crops Appleby Fresh produces on about 160ha – from cabbages and lettuce to melons, celeriac and herbs.

"If you don't have security [of water], you can't do it," he said. "It's a worry; it really worries me."

Like most water users on the plains, O'Connor has received the results of a Tasman District Council "bona fide" review of his water use. It shows the likely reduced allocation of water he can expect when his permits are renewed if the proposed dam does not get the nod or he chooses not to buy shares in it.

Mark O'Connor says water security is crucial for his market gardening business.

Mark O'Connor says water security is crucial for his market gardening business.

O'Connor said he faced an allocation cut of about 40 per cent for one parcel of his land. The likely reductions for other permits were less because the land they are linked to used to be a dairy farm with historic high water use.

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However, that reduced allocation in a dry summer, coupled with tougher water restrictions that are due to come into force under a no-dam scenario, wouldn't provide the security he seeks for Appleby Fresh, which employs about 120 staff in the summer and has an annual wage bill of $2.5 million.

O'Connor said from the end of January to March was a peak time to plant crops for the winter markets – and a time when there was a higher likelihood of a drought.

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"It doesn't take long in the summer for something to fall over if you don't put water on it," he said. "Little plants, they will be dead in four or five hours with those sou'-west winds ... especially things like lettuces that are soft."

The bona fide reviews considered permit holders' soil and crop types along with the maximum area irrigated under their consents in any one week in the 10 years before April 27, 2013. The reviews involved 329 permit holders over two years.

TDC environment and planning manager Dennis Bush-King said by the end of this week, just three assessments were still to be sent.

"They are larger, more complicated permit holders," Bush-King said.

A report was still being complied on the likely total reduction in water allocation from the bona fide reviews.

"At present, we have reduced allocations by 15 per cent with the bulk of the reductions occurring in the Delta, Waimea West and Reservoir [zones]," Bush-King said.

A total of 14 permits had a zero history and would not be renewed.

However, the proposed cuts were not enough to meet the sustainable allocation limits in the Tasman Resource Management Plan "and the target 800 litres a second minimum flow [of the Waimea River] without augmentation would be more difficult to be met, so rationing may occur more frequently and severely in dry times", Bush-King said.

Rules due to come into force by November 2018 set a target flow rate for the Waimea River of 1100l/s if the dam is built or 800l/s if it is not built.

As well as being a grower on the plains, O'Connor is a director of dam proponent Waimea Irrigators Ltd (WIL) – a potential partner with TDC in the estimated $82.5m dam in the Lee Valley.

TDC has earmarked $25m in its Long Term Plan 2015-25 for the project. In June, it passed a resolution that allows an increased capital contribution of up to $3m along with it taking on a higher share of operating costs. WIL proposes raising at least $15m from irrigators along with up to $25m via a 15-year loan from Crown Irrigation Investments Ltd, which acts on behalf of the Government as a bridging investor for regional water infrastructure development.

This week, Environment Minister and Nelson MP Nick Smith announced a $7m grant for the dam project as part of a plan to distribute $44m nationally in the first tranche of funding from the Government's $100m Freshwater Improvement Fund.

It is anticipated another $5m may come from Nelson City Council.

O'Connor said 80 per cent of Appleby Fresh staff lived in Nelson city. In the year to April, Appleby Fresh turned over $8m and provided a lot of "downstream benefits" to the regional economy.

"The money goes around," he said. "I've got a new sprayer coming in the next day or two ... that's $250,000, bought off a local firm."

Unsurprisingly, O'Connor said he believed the dam was a "no-brainer" for the region. 

"You get a drought year, everyone's going to be in trouble."

If Appleby Fresh stopped its market garden business on the plains, "you can guarantee the price [of vegetables] is going to be dearer for the consumer", he said.

However, he also said the dam was a "no-brainer" for urban ratepayers because it was the cheapest option investigated by the council to augment urban water supplies in the long term. 

"It's the cheapest water – you're talking 100 years here," he said. "Look at the growth we're getting in the urban areas ... hundreds and hundreds of [planned] houses."


 - Stuff


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