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Ambitious Irrigation Scheme For Rural Community

Media statement

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Ambitious Irrigation Scheme Breathes Life Into Rural Community

One of New Zealand’s most ambitious irrigation schemes in many years officially opens in North Otago on October 28, breathing new life into a large tract of New Zealand farmland and the rural community around it.

The $67 million irrigation scheme will provide water to about 10,000 hectares of land that is already in production, mostly in dairying, lamb fattening, and grain-growing. The irrigation scheme will improve the productivity of the land, making a major contribution to the North Otago regional economy.

About 80 property-owners joined together to form the North Otago Irrigation Company, a private company which largely owns the scheme. The Waitaki District Council and Meridian Energy also have financial interests in the scheme.

The scheme draws water from the Waitaki River and delivers it by pumps and gravity feed to 85 properties through a piped network of more than 70 kilometres; the property owners pay a charge for the water they draw from the scheme.

Main contractors on the project were Fulton Hogan and Works Infrastructure, who undertook most of the construction. Engineering consultants Beca have undertaken the engineering.

The opening of the scheme ends a decades-long quest by local farmers to find a reliable and affordable source of irrigation water for the Waiareka Valley, which is where the scheme is centred. Irrigation schemes for the Waiareka were discussed publicly as along ago as the 1920s.

The Mayor of Waitaki, Alan McLay, welcomed the opening of the scheme, saying it was a major capital asset for the district. “This scheme will ensure the vitality of a key part of the district over the long-term,” Mr McLay said.

“The scheme is testament to the ability of private landowners to work co-operatively and imaginatively with local government, and the private sector in order to deliver substantial infrastructure. It is a model that the rest of the country can look to.”

Jock Webster, the chairperson of the North Otago Irrigation Company and a local grain and seed-grower, says the irrigation scheme will have multiple benefits for the Waiareka Valley.

“Farmers have made a big investment and accept it will take years to get a return on that, but they know incomes will be boosted by improved production from now on because of the irrigation.

“Dozens more job opportunities on farms and in servicing and processing will provide an on-going economic benefit and this is already having a positive social impact.

“Weston School has had at least 11 new enrolments this year from families who have come into the area because of jobs created on newly-irrigated farms.

“Young people, who left for education and work opportunities, are returning to family farms for the first time since the exodus caused by successive droughts that coincided with the rural downturn of the 1980s. The return of those people, combined with the relative youth of new workers, has brought a lowering of the average age of farmers in the valley.”

Mr Webster said while the psychological benefit was difficult to measure, it was just as important.

“The dry spring this year has confirmed the value of irrigation because as the weather bites we can all see that farmers with irrigated land have options not available to neighbours on dry-land farms. They have an insurance against drought and the reassurance of knowing that they can now grow grass and crops regardless of what the weather brings.

“It is soul destroying watching pasture and crops fail. In this part of the country it doesn’t matter how good a farmer you are, you will be frustrated because your options will always be limited by lack of rain and your success depends on the vagaries of the weather.

“This is what has driven us to find a way to bring irrigation water to the downlands and this is why farmers have supported the scheme. Dry spells and droughts are a fact of life in North Otago and irrigation is the only way to effectively counter them.”

Mr Webster said droughts also cause environmental problems through soil erosion and degradation of waterways. Irrigation will help counter that too.

Beca’s Project Director for Infrastructure in Christchurch, Richard Holyoake, says that from an engineering perspective, the scheme has demanded energy efficiency, high-quality equipment, and attention to water-tightness.

“Irrigation schemes can be energy hungry because water is heavy to move. So we had to pay attention to that. Further, it’s important to ensure the scheme is delivering every drop of water that it pumps, so we have paid attention to quality of equipment and the quality of on-site work.”

Commenting on the completion of the scheme, the chief executive of Meridian Energy, Dr Keith Turner, said: “Meridian is delighted to have played a part in bringing irrigation to this region. The scheme demonstrates how Meridian Energy can work together with irrigators to ensure we make the very best use of one of this country’s most precious resources, water.”


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