Wairarapa water scheme - economic saviour or expensive folly?

Wairarapa's open plains are ripe for more irrigation, but opponents question cost.
ILLYA MCLELLAN/FAIRFAX NZ

Wairarapa's open plains are ripe for more irrigation, but opponents question cost.

Wairarapa's dry summer climate will become even drier. A plan to build large water reservoirs in the northwestern hills, capture water when it is plentiful and transport it down to farms and towns when its needed most makes sense. But economic and environmental hurdles may mean this $200 million project never gets off the ground. Piers Fuller reports.

More than 50 years ago work on one of New Zealand's most ambitious water catchment schemes began - and took three decades to complete.

The Lower Wairarapa Valley Development Scheme transformed large swathes of the region from Greytown south, and was seen as a successful project in increasing agricultural productivity, and providing extensive flood protection.

Backers of a proposed large scale water storage, distribution and irrigation project in the upper valley say it will have an even greater impact on the output and resilience of the region.

Water Wairarapa, the body charged with progressing the new scheme, says it has the power to lift the economy of the whole region and create environmental and recreational benefits. 

Funded equally by Greater Wellington Regional Council ratepayers and taxpayers, via Crown Irrigation Investments, $7.4 million has so far been spent investigating the project. 

Water storage sites at Black Creek and Tividale are under investigation. Water would then be piped to where it's needed.

Water storage sites at Black Creek and Tividale are under investigation. Water would then be piped to where it's needed.

Water Wairarapa project director Michael Bassett-Foss said a more reliable source of water results in long-term economic, social gains and improved resilience. 

"Water storage and a catchment-wide approach to water use and management also provides opportunities to augment summer stream flows, enhance water quality, supplement urban water supplies and create new recreational uses."

A study three years ago concluded that irrigating an additional 30,000 hectares in the Wairarapa valley would add $157 million of GDP to the greater Wellington region per year and create 1200 new jobs.

Irrigation will be one of the main users of the planned scheme, but supporters say there will be many more benefits.
TETSURO MITOMO/FAIRFAX NZ

Irrigation will be one of the main users of the planned scheme, but supporters say there will be many more benefits.

ENVIRONMENTAL AND ECONOMIC WORRIES

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The proposal is not without its knockers. They say it doesn't make economic or environmental sense.

Wellington Fish & Game manager Phil Teal said the main objection stemmed from the negative environmental effect it would have on waterways.

South Wairarapa crop and seed grower Richard Kershaw supports an increased supply of reliable water.
supplied

South Wairarapa crop and seed grower Richard Kershaw supports an increased supply of reliable water.

"We're strongly convinced that the nutrient loading of nitrogen, for example, are fully allocated in the Ruamahanga Catchment. That's if you want to maintain a healthy ecosystem. We see a dam with large-scale irrigation would really see a risk of land intensification, such as dairy and cropping."

Fish & Game commissioned economist Peter Fraser to investigate the scheme's financial viability. He argued the whole plan does not stack up and should be canned before more money is spent on it.

He said despite what Water Wairarapa has said about most of the growth being in arable farming, the bulk of Stage 1 is predicated on dairy farming being an "anchor tenant" and at current milk solid prices farmers couldn't afford the water at its projected cost of between 24-28 cents per cubic metre.

Water in Wairarapa is plentiful in winter and scarce in summer. Would intensification lead to lower river water quality?
CALEB HARRIS/FAIRFAX NZ

Water in Wairarapa is plentiful in winter and scarce in summer. Would intensification lead to lower river water quality?

"How much more ratepayer money is Water Wairarapa going to actually spend on something that quite clearly doesn't work? They're trying to get something that is investment ready, that never will be investment ready because it's a dud."

Greater Wellington chairman Chris Laidlaw said there had been too much focus on the water price - something that has not yet been accurately established - and added the project is just about to have another assessment on farmer demand.

He said the scheme will not go ahead unless it stacks up economically and environmentally and pointed out that increasing dairy production was no longer a focus.

Carterton dairy farmer Graeme Tulloch says there will be more conversions to cropping if they had more access to water.
SUPPLIED

Carterton dairy farmer Graeme Tulloch says there will be more conversions to cropping if they had more access to water.

Dam Free Wairarapa was established to fight the possibility of a reservoir being installed in the upper Mangatarere valley in Carterton. Though that site is now off the table, members still oppose the scheme on the principle it will damage the environment and displace farms.

Chairman David Field said they are concerned about the whole Ruamahanga catchment and the effects intensification could have on water quality.

PREPARING FOR DRIER FUTURE

A recent Niwa report, commissioned by the regional council, shows Wairarapa is expected to get drier as a result of climate change, and certain types of farming will be hit hard, including pastoral farming.

Water Wairarapa said reports like these point to a changing environment, which will need more water.

They commissioned a report by agricultural consulting firm BakerAg on Future Landuse Scenarios.

Though the report predicted further intensification of land use including dairy in the initial period until 2025, based on current trends the long -erm predictions in the period from 2025 to 2040 indicated a shift away from water on pasture to increased water on forage, arable, vegetable and fruit crops.

"Economically, water will, over time follow the path of highest sustainable returns, which is expected to be in seed, fruit and vegetable production where soil class and climatic conditions permit."

In the long term, 25-65 years out, the report expected that a changing world environment, both in weather and food logistics, will see the Ruamahanga valley increasingly exporting edible crop, vegetable and fruit to a Pacific-based market.

"With vision, irrigation will bring a vibrant business and social growth to the Wairarapa community. It will be about a value-add product leaving the Ruamahanga valley and wider districts."

FARMERS WANT MORE WATER

South Wairarapa crop and specialist seed farmer Richard Kershaw grows over a dozen variety of plants on his Martinborough farm. Most of it is for seed and vegetables grown under contract for overseas markets.

He said it was all dependent on the availability of reliable water.

"Without irrigation it is very difficult to grow any of this stuff," Kershaw said.

At a very basic level, irrigation allows crop growers to significantly extend the growing season, increasing the number of crop rotations.

Kershaw has been a vocal backer of the water storage and distribution scheme since it was mooted and believes it will be the stimulus for significant economic growth.

He also said that without irrigation he would not get a contract to grow because he would be considered a risk.

 - Stuff

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