Prevalent opinion that an "incontrovertible" direct link exists between irrigation and the degradation of New Zealand's waterways "is wrong", Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan says.
Cadogan delivered an opening speech at Irrigation New Zealand's national conference being held in Alexandra, Central Otago, on Wednesday and Thursday.
He told a crowd of over 400 that he was one of the few at the conference who had an "unbiased view" and in the past had drawn criticism from both ends of the spectrum.
During the election campaign, Cadogan had been called a "whore to the farmers" after writing a letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern voicing concern about a proposed water tax, while also being abused by others for not trying hard enough, he said.
"When the current government announced its intentions for an irrigation tax the proceeds of which would be applied to degraded waterways, they drew a direct line between irrigation and pollution or degradation of waterways - a direct line that resonated with many in the public. I'm not arguing there aren't cases where that line exists but the biggest issue that I believe faces irrigators is that link between irrigation and the degradation of waterways is incontrovertible - they are wrong."
There was 'a very sad disconnect" between town and country in New Zealand, if not the world, he said.
"I would put money on significant numbers of New Zealanders who think a centre pivot automatically means a dairy conversion is happening. I know that because whenever anyone puts a centre pivot in my district I get phone calls saying there is another dairy conversion. There is a disconnect. What I try to explain is pivots are more environmentally friendly that border dyking or flooding.."
To "get into the hearts and minds" of people, irrigators needed to tell the good news about agriculture, horticulture and viticulture, he said.
"Don't preach that the country relies on primary industries - it does, it plainly does. New Zealand has always relied on it's primary industries but that leverage is not going to gain any friends. Don't talk about how many jobs you create because that is not the message that is going to get the people back on side. And don't stand back and watch those in the industry who are doing wrong. Silence is a very close cousin of support.
"My number one piece of advice to you all as someone from outside of the industry is don't go into your bunkers. This sector has never been more under pressure than it is right now and the only way I think you are going to get into the hearts and minds of many of this country back is by not being afraid to tell the people the good news about agriculture, horticulture and viticulture . . . Telling the good news is powerful. There are new technologies and methods designed to work in sympathy with the environment - these are the stories you need to share, open the gates, let people see what goes on in the good ground of New Zealand."
Irrigation NZ chairwoman Nicky Hyslop said they were pleased to bring the 40th conference to a region that had a long history of irrigation.
"What started off as a demand for water for goldmining is now water for the purposes of supporting a diverse range of land uses - viticulture, horticulture, sheep, beef and dairy."
Central Otago "truly epitomised" the importance of water and irrigation for the benefit of the wider community, she said.
"It provides the region with resilience so important in such a drought-prone area."
Where irrigators once only understood the economics and social impacts of irrigation, they now understood the impact on the environment irrigation and land use has had, she said.
"We accept we have had an impact and as irrigators and irrigation schemes up and down the country are working really hard with communities to help improve quality. This is resulting in huge investment and upgrading farm irrigation scheme systems....to be more sustainable. This is certainly an ongoing task as the standards by which operate today will continue to progress over time."
Modern irrigation schemes and irrigators action on the ground could make a significant difference to the sector treading more lightly while still growing high-quality nutritious food and beverage, she said.
Water storage could also provide the opportunity to support environmental flows for healthy rivers and provide water supply to towns and industry, she said.
"Forward-looking community water storage and irrigation will continue to be an important discussion for New Zealand in the regions and beyond."