NZ Farmer - Water quality issues a '30-year problem' to solve

Written by Brittany Pickett

Tighter restrictions on irrigation will have a big impact on land use throughout the country.

The prospect of more environmental and financial restrictions was raised during a debate about the future of irrigation at the IrrigationNZ conference in Alexandra last week. Among the panellists Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan, Nuffield Scholar and next generation irrigator Ryan O'Sullivan, ANZ rural economist Con Williams, Pamu Farms environmental head Alison Dewes, Pioneer Energy chief executive Fraser Jonker, and Professor Jacinta Ruru.

Williams said long term certainty around water policy was important for farmers to make future investment decision  following the government's announcement that some irrigation projects would be unable to access loan funding.

Dewes said she supported the government's decision as mass land changes had occurred the past 25 years, requiring large amounts of water, and a new strategy was needed.

The dairy "monoculture" had developed fast in one direction, she said.

"This has spillover effects and we need to pull back and think about this."

She said it was positive that farmers had accepted there was a problem and that good science was available to give direction.

Dewes said they were aware at Pamu that farming systems were going to change.

"We're very aware that our current systems probably aren't going to be that favourable in 10-15 years."

To deal with the changes, the industry would have to get out of being trapped in a commodity market, she said.

Government policy on irrigation and the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management dominated the debate.

O'Sullivan said government policy was making it more and more difficult to milk cows.

However, both nutrient discharge and water allocation issues needed to be dealt with at a catchment level as there was so much variety from one catchment to another.

O'Sullivan is a director for Opuha Water Limited in South Canterbury, with his own farm milking 1200 cows.

"It would be great if New Zealand could be all horticulture but it can't happen."

Cadogan agreed that problems needed to be solved at a catchment level and that included the Manuherikia River in Central Otago.

"Manuherikia must be solved by people in our district not out of Wellington. One size won't fit all but that's what will come out of Wellington."

Ruru said once a value was placed on water for a tax it would become property and the government would have to address Māori rights and interests.

"All of us New Zealanders are concerned about freshwater and freshwater quality."

Williams said a water tax would be expensive to collect, and a better approach would be to tax pollution.

Dewes said water quality issues could be resolved, but needed more independent thinking and funding.

She said it would likely be a 30 year problem to solve.

"Irritation is the mother of invention," she said.

Cadogan said Central Otago would be nowhere without irrigation and changes in irrigation policy could have a profound effect on the region.

"We cannot destock any land of trees and vines in a dry season."

The conference panel agreed that an increased focus on environmental requirements meant that farming and irrigation were becoming more sustainable.

"We've got a collective responsibility for our country and for our children to protect the New Zealand brand. We've got to penalise pollution," Dewes said.