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IrrigationNZ calls for 350,000ha more land to be irrigated

By Sophie Boot

Nov. 5 (BusinessDesk) - IrrigationNZ is calling for a dramatic escalation in irrigation, saying New Zealand could bring water to an additional 350,000 hectares by 2025, boosting agricultural production and providing a buffer against weather events such as El Nino-induced drought.

The lobby group wants a 50 percent increase in irrigated land in the next 10 years, according to its industry snapshot released today. New Zealand currently has about 720,000 hectares of irrigated land, and IrrigationNZ has produced a map showing where irrigation could be expanded, pushing total watered land to more than 1 million hectares.

Chief executive Andrew Curtis said New Zealand's primary production growth is being hampered by a lack of a reliable water supply, which ultimately holds back economic growth.

"Much of regional New Zealand's future success is reliant on community water infrastructure developments that create wins for both the economy and environment," Curtis said.

New Zealand currently extracts about 2 percent of available water, excluding the 3 percent used for hydro-power, and taking another 1 percent "would significantly grow the wider economy," he said. Irrigated farm land generated an estimated $2.7 billion to the New Zealand economy, the lobby group said in 2012.

New Zealand is "a water-rich country" and water extraction "is extremely low" compared to other countries, where irrigation can account for 50 percent-to-70 percent of water use, Curtis said.

Irrigation for agriculture and horticulture currently uses around 60 per cent of New Zealand's extracted water, according to IrrigationNZ. Half of New Zealand's irrigated land is used for dairy farming, a quarter is taken up by sheep and beef finishing, and the remaining quarter is made up by vegetable and arable crops, along with fruit and wine growing.

IrrigationNZ's map of future irrigation adds a potential 200,000 ha to the existing 444,777 ha of irrigated land in Canterbury. In Hawkes Bay, where the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme was opposed by environmental groups, 30,000 ha could be added, more than double land under irrigation, while in the Wellington area irrigation could more than triple to 46,638 ha. Northland could add 10,000 ha of irrigated land to the existing 7,794 ha.

Irrigation schemes are controversial due to their environmental impact, and proponents often fight an uphill battle with environmental groups and iwi to get projects off the ground.

In May, the board of inquiry considering the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme revised a previous decision and relaxed water quality conditions that were previously regarded as unworkable, giving irrigators 15 years to find ways to manage nitrogen levels in the Tukituki River. However, would-be investors Infratil and Ngai Tahu had already pulled out. In October, Forest & Bird said it would seek a High Court review of the Department of Conservation's decision to allow 22 hectares of Ruahine Forest Park to be flooded for irrigation as part of that scheme.

In June, a report by agribanking specialist Rabobank said significant expansion of irrigated land, which has doubled every 12 years since 1970, has also contributed to land use change and increased productivity. Future expansion, particularly in dairy, is now challenged by the impact of land use on water quality due to higher nutrient levels, which will affect competition for land and productivity, the report said.

The National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research said New Zealand may be heading for a "super El Nino", reminiscent of the 1997/98 drought, in its October outlook. NIWA said there's a 99 percent probability of El Nino conditions continuing over the next three months, intensifying as they go. Many are citing increased use of irrigation as potentially mitigating the impact of an El Nino, as well as more drought tolerant pasture species. However, water restrictions may apply and sheep and beef farmers are less likely to have irrigation schemes because of their hilly terrain.


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