Sunday, December 3, 2023

Irrigation scheme to fund farm plans for biodiversity corridor

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‘From the mountains to the sea’ part of OWL long-term strategy.
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A South Canterbury irrigation company has committed to an environmental strategy to fund biodiversity plans for its shareholders to create a biodiverse corridor stretching from the mountains to the sea.  

Opuha Water Ltd (OWL) will support local environmental initiatives, working with shareholders to identify biodiversity opportunities on their properties, with the long-term goal of creating the biodiverse corridor centred on local waterways.

The OWL board has approved a biodiversity budget of $128,000 to fund the first year’s work as part of its long-term 20- to 30-year strategy.

In what is believed to be a first in New Zealand, the irrigation company is paying for the writing of biodiversity plans for its shareholders’ properties, with more than 95 plans encompassing 35,000ha of land completed to date. 

“The fact that our shareholders have access to water for their business is a privilege we, and they, don’t take for granted,” OWL chair Ryan O’Sullivan said. 

“Our biodiversity strategy will ensure there is commensurate give and take between us and the environment.” 

The scheme focuses on protection, restoration, enhancement, and creation of biodiversity on shareholders’ properties; commitment to biodiversity on land owned by OWL; and stakeholder partnerships in biodiversity projects.

“Opuha’s catchment runs from the hills and mountains feeding water into Lake Opuha and then down the Opuha and Opihi rivers to the sea.” 

“This is already a continuous corridor of mixed biodiversity from in-river eco-systems to the surrounding land owned by shareholders. 

“The rivers have biodiversity values which we can help protect and improve, and many of our farmers’ properties have existing natural elements that can be enhanced to strengthen the biodiversity values of the whole corridor.”

There are also opportunities to create new environmental features within the corridor as well.

Each year, OWL plans to budget for assisting shareholders to undertake documented actions in their biodiversity plans.

“In future, biodiversity plans will be become a module of an integrated farm plan covering all aspects of farming including employment, health and safety, animal welfare and environmental considerations.”

O’Sullivan said OWL owns land around Lake Opuha and its scheme infrastructure that provides a fantastic opportunity for biodiversity enhancement. 

“Native planting of Lake Opuha Island is the priority, followed by strategic areas around Lake Opuha and the downstream weir creating a biodiverse environment in a popular recreational area that everyone can access and enjoy.

“This is a long-term commitment by OWL and its shareholders.” 

“We are looking at a 200 to 30-year plan and for some projects it will take that long before environmental benefits are fully realised. 

“It will also come at a cost, which is why we are paying for biodiversity farm plans and contributing toward ongoing implementation projects,” O’Sullivan said.

The Opuha Dam, which is situated at the confluence of the North and South Opuha rivers 17km northeast of Fairlie, is an infrastructure project undertaken by the community of South Canterbury.  

The overall project consists of a 50m-high earth dam with a single hydro turbine and a lake covering up to 710ha and storing more than 74 million cubic metres of water.

The lake provides water to maintain environmental flows in the downstream catchment and for irrigation as well as urban and industrial supplies.  

Renewable hydro-electricity is generated with the water released from the dam.

The Opuha water scheme operates by releasing water into the Opuha River, which flows into the Opihi River with irrigation takes from both the Opuha and Opihi rivers.

Although water is released from the dam to ensure the health of the river, irrigation water is also supplied to a number of sub-schemes of these rivers: Levels Plain, Kākahu, Tōtara Valley and Sutherlands, distributing the water through races and channels. 

The water is pumped from these races and channels by the landowners, while other irrigators pump from the river either through galleries or adjacent bores. 

Water is also supplied to the Timaru District Council for commercial and domestic purposes.

Following its first 10 years of operation, the scheme was purchased outright in 2008 by the farmer irrigators who are now 100% shareholders of the ownership company OWL.

The project has been immensely successful for the economic prosperity of the region, enabling the development of a robust agricultural sector covering a wide range of land use activities including dairying, horticulture and arable cropping, sheep, beef and deer and specialist seed growing.

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