Cutting the red tape preventing farmers from storing water is critical for the long-term success of New Zealand agriculture, says Federated Farmers vice president Colin Hurst.
In the lead-up to this year’s election, Federated Farmers made unlocking the potential for water storage one of our 12 policy priorities for the next Government.
National responded in September by announcing that, if elected, they would change the rules so farmers would no longer need resource consent to build water storage in most situations.
“Federated Farmers were really pleased to see National campaigning on a platform of making small-scale on-farm water storage a permitted activity, and developing a National Policy Statement for large-scale off-farm community water storage schemes,” says Hurst.
“Farmers have been crying out for change, so it’s important a National-led Government follow through on their promises to our rural communities.”
Hurst says it makes sense that farmers should be able to capture water when rainfall is plentiful and waterways are flooding, and to store it to help even out those peaks and troughs.
“New Zealand is getting less water when we need it, and more when we don’t.
“Water storage has a critical role to play when it comes to improving climate resilience in our rural communities, but there will be other benefits too, like supporting land use change and increasing production.”
Hurst’s comments come as NIWA and other experts warn of potential drought conditions this summer.
Moisture maps show soils are significantly drier than usual in Tasman and Marlborough.
El Niño’s early arrival has farmers in many districts, but especially on the east coasts of both islands, checking feed and livestock levels.
Hurst says, under current regulations, it is nearly impossible to get any new water storage off the ground.
“The current system is broken.”
Speaking at a workshop last year, Wairarapa Federated Farmers member Len French described the planning hurdles, bureaucracy and NGO stubbornness he had to overcome to build a 750,000 cubic metre irrigation reservoir on his farm.
That led then-Wairarapa Federated Farmers meat and wool chair, now newly elected MP Mike Butterick, to comment that “most of us mere mortals would have given up long before you did”.
Hurst contrasts the very different fortunes of two major community water storage schemes at either end of the North Island.
Just east of Kaikohe, the Matawii Dam and a 13-hectare artificial lake behind it were opened in May this year. The local mayor described it as “transformational” for both boosting local horticulture and as a back-up for town supply during droughts. A much larger dam is now being built south of Dargaville.
Meanwhile, after 20 years’ debate and planning, and $12 million spent, a major Wairarapa dam project was abandoned in 2021. The 20 million cubic metre Wakamoekau community dam was intended to harvest high winter flows of the Waingawa River. When the project was canned, its backers cited the time and costs of trying to navigate planning restrictions.
“The difference between those two projects? Kaikohe won fast-track consenting; Wakamoekau was strangled by the over-complicated environmental planning framework,” says Hurst.
“Federated Farmers are strongly of the view that if a water storage scheme relies on Ministerial backing to get off the ground, then the system clearly isn’t working.”
Hurst adds that environmental concerns shouldn’t be used to block desperately needed new water storage schemes, when farmers are already subject to many rules ensuring the environment will be protected.
“Farmers should be able to access the water they need to grow their businesses and the New Zealand economy, provided they’re meeting their environmental obligations.”
The need for water storage is well recognised.
In mid-2021, MPI published a report, ‘Water Availability and Security in Aotearoa New Zealand’. It noted current climate change trends show a country getting warmer and drier, with some regional variations, and more prone to climate extremes.
If New Zealand wants to transition towards land uses that have a higher economic and lower environmental footprint, and improved community resilience, “this will require increased water security”, the report said.
Canterbury, Hawke’s Bay, Tasman and southern Manawatū were identified as regions that would need medium to large storage infrastructure to enable water security of 95% or greater.
The key recommendation of the report working group was that MPI establish a Water Availability and Security Partnership. This would comprise central and local government, iwi/Māori, food and fibre sector organisations and community interest groups. The partnership should develop an action plan and business case for implementation of a national water availability and security strategic approach.
Federated Farmers asked MPI on October 11 if MPI had acted on these recommendations.
An MPI spokesperson told us the Ministry established a permanent water availability and security team in 2022.
The team is “taking a partnership approach to the water challenges facing the food and fibre sector and rural communities” and has started building a network which will include those groups mentioned in the 2021 recommendation.
“Optimising water in the future will be important to protect freshwater ecosystems, and water for human health. Strategic use of water can help unlock the economic potential of land to support the food and fibre sector and rural communities, and improve ecological and human health outcomes.
“The work is in its early stages,” the MPI spokesperson said.
Hurst said water storage is a top-priority issue for Federated Farmers and “we’ll be pushing hard for the Government to fix the system”.
Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.