Wine Marlborough criticised for 'political' stance on Labour's water policy

Churton Estate co-owner Sam Weaver believes a royalty on irrigation would encourage grapegrowers to use water more ...

Churton Estate co-owner Sam Weaver believes a royalty on irrigation would encourage grapegrowers to use water more efficiently.

Marlborough grapegrowers who support charging for water have criticised the industry body that represents them for attacking Labour's irrigation policy.

Wine Marlborough deputy chairman Simon Bishell called it "dangerous" and "deceitful", and said any additional cost would place exporters at a disadvantage.

However, his comments have angered some industry members who say they do not represent their views and that Wine Marlborough should be non-partisan.

The policy, announced earlier this month, includes a royalty on bottled water and a royalty for every 1000 litres, or cubic metre, of irrigation water used.

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Labour faced criticism for not setting rates when the policy was announced, but have since said the irrigation royalty would likely be 2 cents per cubic metre.

Churton Estate owner Sam Weaver said he and other grapegrowers that had contacted him were disappointed by Bishell's "inflammatory" comments.

"I don't think Wine Marlborough should be political, it's supposed to be an apolitical body and those comments were just scare mongering," he said.

"The idea that charging a small royalty is going to affect our global markets is arrant nonsense.

"But what it would do is give us the opportunity to demonstrate we're using the resource in a sustainable way."

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Churton Estate, a biodynamic wine producer with a 22-hectare vineyard near the Waihopai Valley, had the goal of using minimal or no irrigation.

Weaver said others in the industry were already successfully using little water, and that setting a charge would encourage more efficient water use overall.

"Though the royalty is absolutely minimal it would serve to focus people's attention and improve their water use," he said.

Labour had proposed taking the royalty and giving it to the regional council in the area where it was collected to improve the quality of waterways.

Weaver said there was growing demand for environmentally-friendly products, and anything that boosted the wine industry's sustainable credentials would play well in the markets.

He disputed Bishell's suggestion that any extra cost would make Marlborough wine companies less competitive on the global stage.

"Marlborough's global advantage is it produces wine nobody else can copy," Weaver said.

"The product we produce gives us an element of margin elasticity, it means you've got the ability to have bigger margins because people want Marlborough sauvignon blanc."

Bishell declined to comment on Tuesday.

However, Wine Marlborough chairman Rhyan Wardman said at the time Bishell made his comments the policy lacked detail and he was entitled to call for more information.

"We now understand that industry will be consulted prior to any new water use policy and this presents us an opportunity to highlight our sustainable winegrowing aspirations," he said.

"Prudent use of this scarce, natural resource is already a part of every winegrower's mindset, and protecting our environment for generations to come is part of our winegrowing ethos."

Clos Marguerite owner Jean-Charles Van Hove said he would have no problem paying a royalty on water, and thought it would encourage better water use practices.

The maximum daily take for his 10-hectare vineyard in the Awatere Valley was 22 cubic metres a hectare, which would cost $4.40 a day to irrigate at 2 cents per 1000 litres.

"I think it's the right concept to charge for water, and the charges being bandied around by Labour are so small they shouldn't be a great cause of concern," he said.

Van Hove said Bishell was wrong to say the industry operated within small profit margins, and that a charge on water would prove detrimental to exporters.

"If you can't make decent money out of growing sauvignon blanc in Marlborough then you should look at finding another job," he said.

"To say there are small margins, who are you kidding? It's just not true."

Irrigation NZ hits back

The non-profit membership group for irrigators has run the numbers and criticised the logic behind Labour's policy, dubbed 'Clean Water for Future Generations'.

Labour says the money raised through royalties on water bottling and irrigation will, mostly, be returned to the regional council in the area it was collected to clean up waterways.

However, Irrigation NZ chief executive Andrew Curtis claimed regions with more irrigated land had more swimmable rivers, and that the reverse also seemed to apply.

Irrigation NZ data showed Marlborough had 3 per cent of the irrigated land in New Zealand, and that on a 2 cents per 1000 litre rate Labour's policy would raise $2.3 million a year.

"But 90 per cent of its rivers are already classed as good or excellent for swimming by the Ministry for the Environment with only 1 per cent graded as poor," Curtis said.

"So would there be enough projects to actually spend that money?"

On its website, Labour said the "royalty will be flexible to reflect the scarcity or abundance of water in different regions, the different quality of water, and its use."

Royalties would be set in consultation with affected industries following the election if Labour was in a position to form a Government.

 - The Marlborough Express


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