Hurunui Water Project

October 2015

An irrigation scheme is trying to get underway following a number of drought years

The Hurunui district of North Canterbury is a diverse area with mainly sheep and beef farming but also cropping and wintering of dairy stock. Any irrigation water is pumped directly from the Hurunui River or Waitohi aquifer.

New Zealand already has about 750,000ha of land under irrigation with potential to go to 1.1 million ha, but the days of “easy water” are over, says Irrigation New Zealand chief executive Andrew Curtis. He predicts the next big thing for irrigation will be water storage.

The Hurunui Water Project began 13 years ago following a string of droughts. Its $400 million Waitohi Irrigation Scheme could ultimately draw 70% of its water from the Hurunui River and 30% from two, then four water storage dams on its tributary, the Waitohi River. The water is intended to irrigate 58,500 drought-prone hectares of land, contributing a forecast $480 million to the economy and 3400 jobs.

Stage One is planned as an $80m development watering 10,000 ha, contributing $100 million to the economy. Stage Two could include small hydro schemes to offset pumping costs.

So far, $11.4 million has been invested, $9.6m from 196 shareholders towards the process of applying for consents and $1.8m from the government’s Irrigation Acceleration Fund and grants towards engineering and investigations.

Shareholdings are based on irrigable land area with some farmers having already invested $100,000-$200,000. Ngāi Tahu owns 29.6% of shares and lines company Mainpower, 13.2%.

The timeline of the Hurunui Water Project is as follows :

2002 – Hurunui Water Project Trust formed

2008 – HWP company formed

2010 – HWP releases prospectus and raises funds in the first of four share calls, with the final call in March 2014.

2012 – Applies to Environment Canterbury (ECan) for consents to take, store, discharge and use water. This is the year the Hurunui Waiau Zone Committee endorses a Zone Implementation Programme for the catchment, prepared under the Canterbury Water Management Strategy aimed at balancing competing demands for water.

August 2013 – ECan grants nine resource consents including conditions on nutrient (nitrogen and phosphate) loading

September 2013 – MPI grants $2.4m from its Irrigation Acceleration Fund, drawn down from on a dollar-for-dollar basis. This covers applications for drilling tests at potential storage sites in Waitohi Valley, planning and public consultation

Late 2013 – Amuri Irrigation Company appeals HWP consents due to concerns they might reduce the nitrogen load available to Amuri Irrigation. Ngāi Tahu Property joins the appeal.

February 2015 – Ngāi Tahu, the Amuri Irrigation Co and HWP plus ECan lodge agreed conditions with the Environment Court based on methods for managing nutrients in the catchment. It’s expected the Court will issue an order granting consents with new conditions.

July 2015 – Environment Court unexpectedly announces it plans to appoint an Amicus Curiae (friend in court) to provide neutral advice.

August 2015 – Amuri Irrigation withdraws their appeal.  Unusually, the Environment Court says that Amuri Irrigation need leave from the court to withdraw their appeal.  Hurunui Water Project considers this to be outside the Environment Court’s jurisdiction and appeals to the High Court.  The High Court hearing date is 28 October.

Development of a scheme to supply irrigation water to drought-prone farms in the Hurunui district of North Canterbury has been put on ice while the Environment Court considers a final ruling.

HWP chief executive, Alex Adams, said the company’s directors had to stall spending while the Environment Court considered its final ruling on the project’s application to develop its $400 million Waitohi Irrigation Scheme.

The scheme was envisaged as a way of making existing farming more reliable and some dairy conversions were also expected, said Adams. The money might instead be needed to cover legal costs and keep the company running.

Adams says the delay has coincided with a tough summer of serious drought and falling dairy prices.

About $1 million of dollar-for-dollar Irrigation Acceleration Fund money remains in the contract but HWP has to see its way clear to unlock this money by matching it dollar for dollar. With time moving on and legal expenses building, planned project work has been put on hold. This includes geotechnical drilling and economic modelling of what water would cost, to help farmers calculate the economics of joining the scheme.

“To be prudent, we had to stop spending and stay in business,” Adams said. “A lot of farmers are really irate.”

Nine consents to take, dam and use water were granted in August 2013. Amuri Irrigation appealed due to concerns they might reduce nitrogen load available. Ngāi Tahu Property, owner of Balmoral Forest which it intends to convert for dairying, later joined the appeal.

Adams said he did not know why the Court sought more legal knowledge when it was being advised by four experienced Resource Management Act lawyers employed by the parties.

The scheme was a model for sustainable water and agricultural development, designed to make existing farming more reliable and open up more options, said Adams. Yet, it’s been unreasonably impacted over its 13 year history by changes in legislation and regulations and delays beyond its control.

“The fact that there were no appeals of a direct environmental nature on the nine consents we were granted is evidence of the meaningful consultation undertaken and that the scheme represents a sound future model for sustainable water and agricultural development in New Zealand,” says Adams.

HWP farmer liaison committee chairman, Mark Zino, is also baffled why the Environment Court has delayed issuing consents for the scheme when all parties had come to an agreement lodged with the court. “We’ve invested so much time and money and heartache in this scheme just to have it held up in a bureaucratic legal process,” he says.