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Tapping into water security needs

“Water is the new gold,” Shane McManaway said to the many dozens of farmers, officials, and noteworthies gathered at his 580ha Ongaha farm in Featherston this week. “We need to use it wisely.”

Andrew Hoggard – Minister for Biosecurity and Food Safety, and Associate Minister of Agriculture and for the Environment – along with Wairarapa MP Mike Butterick and ACT MP Cameron Luxton, met with locals to talk about the criticality of water for the future of farming in Wairarapa.

Hoggard is a lifelong dairy farmer and former Federated Farmers president. Butterick, likewise, has farming running through his veins, and Luxton has a background in both construction and farming.

“If you’re trying to sell me on the importance of water,” Hoggard said, “I’m there. The ability to diversify farm production, and to swap land use in and out, is only possible if we can add water into the mix. Without water, we’re more likely to carry on farming stock that can survive on silage in tough times.”

McManaway and neighbouring arable farmer Richard Kershaw agree that if you “bring the water, then the infrastructure for cropping will follow. The demand for our crops is increasing all the time, but can we meet it?”

“We need to get rid of the bullshit regulations that are holding us back,” Luxton said.

“That’s the beauty of the Fast Track Approvals Bill,” Hoggard said. “It will help us bridge the gap until we have a new Resource Management Act in place. We need protections, but we also want business to flourish.”

“What we really need is a Minister for Water,” said Vanessa Winning from Irrigation New Zealand. “But we’re working closely with Shane Jones [Minister for Regional Development] and have put forward four projects for fast tracking. We’re feeling really confident about at least one of these.”

That’s the Tukituki water security proposal in the Hawke’s Bay. The other three fast tracking proposals from Irrigation New Zealand are Falls Dam in Central Otago, Klondyke water storage in Mid Canterbury, and the Wairarapa ‘revamp’.

By ‘revamp’, Irrigation New Zealand is referring to work on water storage that has previously been carried out in the region.

“The first major drought in Wairarapa was 1997,” McManaway said. “And Bob Francis was Wairarapa’s first water activist.”

Bob Francis – a local legend and 2024 Kiwibank Senior New Zealander of the Year – began making waves about Wairarapa’s need for water resilience about 23 years ago. On Tuesday, Francis was at Ongaha to support the next stage of advocacy for water resilience.

After a couple of decades of engineering studies, reports, resource applications, and changes to planning rules, we now have the Wairarapa Water Resilience Strategy. The Water Resilience Group is chaired by Masterton District councillor David Holmes.

Steven McNally, from Irrigation New Zealand, said that “water is the number one enabler for farmers,” echoing the point made by some farmers at Ongaha that without water certainty and water resilience, they will be stuck in dairy farming.

Having agreed that water storage both on- and off-farm is needed in Wairarapa for industry, agriculture, community needs, recreational use, and even for river health [stored water can be released into a dry riverbed to ensure the survival of flora and fauna], the consensus was that regulatory constraints are the key barrier to progressing water storage infrastructure.

“Without planning and consenting certainty, it is difficult to find anyone willing to invest in water storage,” Winning said. Without certainty, risk remains.

“Fast tracking will help. And we’re moving to make building dams on-farm a permitted activity,” Hoggard said.

However, when asked if the government will have funding to support the infrastructure of water storage projects – whether for communities or on-farm – the answer was “we can’t promise any money whatsoever”.

Other possible funding options include grouping projects together, so that the investment might be attractive to the NZ Super Fund or ACC. At a government level, “discussions are also underway about potentially standing up something similar to the former Crown Irrigation Investments entity,” Winning told the group. That entity currently still exists but is winding down.

Two issues only lightly touched on with respect to the expected magic bullet of the Fast Track Approvals Bill were the need to “bring the people along and not lose social licence” and potential conflicts if the Bill tramps all over Deeds of Treaty Settlements.

Holmes noted that water security would create certainty for businesses. “Employment and economic growth would follow. But first, we need to study the past water storage proposals and determine if any option remains viable.” Local and regional councils were asked for funding to make that study possible.

Thanks to the efforts of the previous Ongaha owners, the Bartons, the McManaway’s farm is one of the fortunate few that have unrestricted access to water from the Ruamahanga River. The areas irrigated by the river have good green growth. All non-irrigated areas remain brown and lifeless, even in May.

“Our goal here at Ongaha is leadership, innovation, and custodianship of our land,” McManaway said. “We are demonstrating that farming can occur in sustainable ways. Lynette has planted 75,000 trees, a $6,500 investment, with the support of Greater Wellington Regional Council. Our wetlands are home to the rare royal spoonbill duck.”

“Farmers should have more of an incentive to foster biodiversity. They should also gain credit from that,” Hoggard said. “We’re taking advice from officials about establishing a ‘biodiversity credits’ programme. It might even work a bit like the emissions trading scheme.”

No doubt there’s more to come about that.


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