August 21, 2008

Rainy Day Savings for Big Dry

A public meeting will be held tomorrow night to discuss the Waimea water augmentation project. Laura Basham reports on progress on the $25 million plan to supply more water to the Waimea Plains, Richmond and potentially Nelson. --------------------

The case for the Waimea water augmentation project is obvious.

Just look at the rainfall over the past few weeks that has gone to waste.

Then think back to the lack of water and the rationing for water users on the Waimea Plains last summer when the lower Waimea River went dry.

The solution: store the winter rainfall for use in the summer.

The idea is to build a dam in the Lee Valley and release the water when river flows are low, topping up the aquifers that supply urban Richmond and irrigators on the Waimea Plains.

The project is regarded as critically important for the region's long-term future, both for urban and rural users.

Project manager Joseph Thomas says the Waimea Basin is the region's food basket and the net productive value of the groundwater has been estimated at $250 million.

Drive around the area and it is easy to see how intensive water use has become, with users ranging from dairy farms to a wide variety of horticulture - vegetables, flowers, kiwifruit, apples, pears and grapes.

An impetus to take action was a severe drought in 2001 when water users were rationed, some up to 70 percent of their allocation, and saltwater intruded.

"We were very lucky," Thomas said. "If it had gone another week or two we may have had to go to severe rationing for only human consumption and town supply."

Water on the Waimea Plains was found to be over allocated by 22 percent, and a long-term solution was needed.

In December 2003, the Waimea Water Augmentation Committee was formed and began looking at water enhancement for Waimea.

It is a community group with 13 representatives of water users, iwi, Fish and Game, the Department of Conservation, Tasman District Council and Nelson City Council, all with equal voting rights.

All the parties say the key to success of advancing the project has been involving this diverse range of groups from the start, giving them the opportunity to talk through issues.

Committee chairman, dairy farmer Murray King, says, "We all want the same thing: a reliable supply of water in the river."

He is confident the dam will go ahead.

"I think it has to," he says.

"If it doesn't, we'll find the Waimea Plains covered in houses.

"That would be unfortunate given the current global food shortage. We don't produce a lot but it all adds up."

Committee member orchardist Kit Maling believes it would be disastrous if the project does not go ahead.

"It would be an absolute catastrophe. With climate change, it would destroy horticulture out here," he says.

The project is simply about security of supply, says Maling, who chairs the Waimea East Irrigation Company, which irrigates more than 950ha for 150 users.

A grower who buys land might spend another $50,000 developing it, and more on preparing his crop, he says.

"If you can't get water, you can't grow. Why would you invest that money?"

It would be a mistake to think the project is just about irrigation for rural users.

All the water for Richmond is pumped from the aquifers, and there is potential for Nelson to use it as well.

The project is a regional one, looking at a secure water supply for the next 100 years.

The Nelson City Council will have to decide if it wants to use the water - and it did when its Maitai water pipeline was damaged in last month's big storm.

It is looking at fast-tracking a new $12 million Maitai pipeline and does not seem to be in a hurry to commit to the Waimea project. Nelson's representative on WWAC, Cr Mark Holmes, said the city council was interested but not making a commitment.

Rather, it is even looking at getting back the $200,000 it put towards the project investigation if it does not go ahead.

King wants Nelson involved.

"It would be useful to have that commitment now," he says.

"They have other things on their mind.

"Their advisers have a view that they are okay.

"Some of our people seem to think the opposite."

Lots of issues need to be worked through.

The Department of Conservation sees benefits in the river's increased flows which will provide a better aquatic environment and help it restore native plantings along the banks.

However, its representative on WWAC, Martin Heine, says if the project goes ahead there will be flooding of the Mt Richmond Forest Park so it is looking at ways of exchanging land to compensate.

Iwi have also signalled land issues as the reservoir behind the dam would be on crown forest land set aside for treaty settlements.

"We do not know the outcome of settlement negotiations," Iwi representative Barney Thomas says.

"I am just making the committee aware there may be issues there.

"Nobody wants surprises at the end of the line."

Another meeting will be held tomorrow afternoon ahead of WWAC's public meeting.

It has been called by Fish and Game's WWAC representative, Neil Deans, to discuss environmental and recreational issues with affected groups.

The recommended new flow for the river of 1100 litres a second, up from 225, would be a big plus, he says.

However, on the other side of the ledger there are concerns about what impact impounding the upper Lee might have, he says.

A recreational assessment study is about to start, which will include looking at opportunities such as how river activities might tie in with those on TDC- administered land at the lower part of the river.

A crucial issue also being worked on is who pays and how much, with consultants looking at funding options.

The project was estimated two years ago to cost $25 million but an up-to-date figure will not be known until the detailed design is costed.

King says the users will pay, and that ranges from irrigators to the council that takes water for urban supply.

Whether the Government contributes to this significant infrastructure may depend on which government we get.

The project has received government funding through the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's Sustainable Farming Fund - $240,000 for half the cost of the first phase, and $400,000 for the second, which is 26 percent.

The Government has indicated that while it can help fund project investigations it is not necessarily its role to fund the overall project, says King.

National Nelson MP Nick Smith says the degree to which a National government would contribute would relate to the environmental component.

If 10 percent of water used for increasing minimum flows is for recreational and conservation use, it would make a contribution to recognise the public good, he says.

The Nelson Regional Economic Development Agency's regional economic development strategy identifies that water is a fundamentally important resource to the region.

The agency's chief executive, Bill Findlater, says water is a precious resource, particularly in Waimea.

"It's starting to run to its limitation and we need to do something to increase the productivity of the land, particularly to increase the yield of crops suitable for export."

The project will substantially increase the amount of land available for production.

The area now has 3700ha irrigated but the project has potential to irrigate a further 1800ha on the plains and the lower Wai-iti, which could increase production by a further $20 million to $30 million a year.

Findlater says the EDA would fully support the project.

Maling, like the others on WWAC, is determined to see this big project happen.

"It's a legacy," he says.

The WWAC public meeting to discuss the project will be held tomorrow, starting at 7pm, at the Hope Community Church, Ranzau Rd.


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