Should there be a moratorium on new irrigation schemes?
Lobby group Irrigation NZ has hit back at calls for a five-year ban on new irrigation schemes in the wake of the dairy downturn as being out of step with who reaps the benefit from them.
The Tourism Export Council and the Environmental Defence Society say the government's decision to pour hundreds of millions of dollar into irrigation is a gamble given the dairy downturn and that the growth in intensive farming is a disaster for rivers and streams.
But Irrigation NZ chief executive Andrew Curtis said irrigation supports a variety of land uses including viticulture, horticulture, cropping, sheep and beef. Dairy accounts for half of New Zealand's irrigated area, with 25% relating to sheep and beef finishing and the remaining quarter to vegetable and arable crops, alongside fruit and wine growing.
"Without irrigation, the tourism industry wouldn't be able to promote the food and wine packages it offers in regions such as Hawke's Bay, Marlborough and Central Otago," Mr Curtis said. "These growers are only able to produce quality vintages and products with the support of reliable water."
The most recent estimate of the value of irrigated farms was a 2012 study which found they contributed $2.7 billion to the farmgate and more than twice that in benefits to the wider community.
Last week the government announced $1.6 million worth of funding for three irrigation schemes and Lesley Immink, chief executive of the Tourism Export Council, which represents more than half of the companies that bring in overseas visitors, said she was surprised by the amount of money the government was putting into irrigation while not addressing the country's water quality issues.
The council has been pushing a 'Choose Clean Water Petition' to get new legislation that would set a higher benchmark for fresh water quality, to make waterways swimmable rather than just wadeable.
Ms Immink said today she now "knows a lot more about irrigation than she did 24 hours ago" and acknowledges that there's a place for some schemes, particularly in drought-prone areas of the country.
However, she said there is a direct correlation between water quality and water allocation and "why can't we just pause" on new irrigation schemes while action is taken to resolve our "water crisis."
Separately, Greenpeace today called for Prime Minister John Key to resign his position as minister of tourism because of his continued backing for intensive dairy irrigation schemes that would increase pollution of New Zealand's rivers and streams.
Mr Curtis said getting better at using and storing water had allowed the country to address environmental challenges including legacy water quality concerns as a result of increased land use intensity and general population growth in urban centres.
"We accept that with increasing land intensity, water abstraction needs to leave enough water in our rivers and streams to maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems [the majority of New Zealand rivers have a minimum flow regime], and the impact of farming on the land needs to minimise its footprint," he said.
Stored water also helps New Zealand address climate change issues either through augmenting river flows during the summer or recharging aquifers in spring, Mr Curtis said.
"The Environmental Defence Society is sitting in Auckland throwing stones. It needs to come out to the provinces and see what is going on," he said.
Currently, New Zealand abstracts only 2% of its water resource (excluding hydropower) and irrigation accounts for 60% percent of that, which is low by international standards.
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