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Irrigation Conference Looks to the Future

New Zealand: A National Conference looking at the future of irrigation sparked debate on the future direction of the sector and changes on the horizon.

IrrigationNZ Chair Nicky Hyslop opened the Conference by saying that Central Otago truly epitomised the importance of water and irrigation for the benefit of the wider community.

“Irrigation underpins not only agriculture, but also numerous tourism activities as well as local businesses in town. It provides the region with resilience which is so important in such a drought prone area.”

“We now understand the impact on the environment irrigation and land use has had. Irrigators and schemes up and down the country are working with communities to improve water quality,” she added.

Ms Hyslop said that Farm Environment Plans and investment in new farm and irrigation systems were helping reduce environmental impacts.

A debate about the future of irrigation brought a range of views to the table. Panellists Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan, Nuffield Scholar and next generation irrigator Ryan O’Sullivan, ANZ Rural Economist Con Williams, Dr Alison Dewes (Pamu Farms Environment Head), Fraser Jonker (CEO of Pioneer Energy Limited) and Professor Jacinta Ruru discussed a range of topics.

Following the government’s recent announcement that a number of irrigation schemes won’t be able to access loan funding, Economist Con Williams said that long term certainty around water policy was important for farmers to make future investment decisions.

Alison Dewes supported the government’s decision, saying that New Zealand needs a new strategy as mass land changes had occurred in the past twenty years which required significant amounts of water. “This has spill over effects and we need to pull back and think about this.”

However, Dr Dewes said that it was positive that there was acceptance that there was a problem amongst farmers, and that good science was available to tell everyone where to go.

Farmer Ryan O’Sullivan said that both nutrient discharge issues and allocation issues needed to be dealt with at a catchment level as there was so much variety catchment to catchment in the issues being dealt with.

Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan agreed, referencing a local river which is used for irrigation. “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.”

A water tax was also discussed with Professor Jacinta Ruru saying that once a value was placed on water, water is property and the government would have to address what Maori rights and interests in water were.

Con Williams said that a water tax would be expensive to collect however a tradeable system may work, but a better approach would be tax the externality (pollution).

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

International water management expert Dr Stuart Styles from the Irrigation Training and Research Centre at Cal Poly State University recently toured New Zealand looking at how our irrigation systems compare to those in California.

He saw a lot of similarity between New Zealand and California. “New Zealand has very modernised irrigation systems and even had some features I haven’t seen in California.”

“Both areas use automated systems. One area where New Zealand is more advanced than California is in the use of water ordering and billing where the systems are more integrated.”

Dr Styles saw that there was opportunity for New Zealand to modernise more systems by replacing open races with piped systems. In California, growers had also experimented with their fertiliser management to obtain improved crop yields which New Zealand could learn from.

Spray irrigation are the predominant type of system in New Zealand, whereas in California surface irrigation is used on 43% of irrigated land which is a less water efficient system.

Overall Dr Styles concluded that irrigation systems and practices in New Zealand were at the upper end of the performance spectrum.


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