Speech to BlueGreens environmental conference

Saturday, February 20, 2016 - 12:46
Primary Industries

Good morning. As Minister Smith has just outlined, we have made a lot of progress over the last few years in improving how we manage our freshwater. But there is more to do.

We are an ambitious Government and we believe we can do better, economically and environmentally.

The consultation document we are releasing today sets out the next steps in this goal, with 23 initiatives.

We know it will take time to work through all these issues in a collaborative way – it is a journey, and that’s why it is called Next Steps for Fresh Water. We are keen to seek public feedback on some proposals for improving freshwater management.

Today I want to set out how important water is to the primary sector, and how we are working to improve how we use this crucial resource.

Irrigation and the economy

New Zealand is lucky to have a plentiful supply of freshwater. It drives our economy in the same way that minerals do for Australia and oil does for Saudi Arabia.

After severe droughts over the last few summers in all different parts of the country, the need for better water storage is obvious. We only capture around 2 per cent of rainfall in New Zealand, with the rest roaring out to sea.

The West Coast of the South Island is the wettest area in New Zealand, whereas east of the mountains just 100 kilometres away is one of the driest.

Clearly, we don’t have a water shortage in New Zealand, but a water storage shortage.

What irrigation means for farmers and growers is that they have a reliable source of water and can plan their output with some certainty, instead of fluctuating year by year at the mercy of Mother Nature.

I’ve seen for myself what a difference it makes to rural communities, revitalising schools and entire towns, creating jobs for locals. South Island regions and towns like Ashburton and Oamaru are good examples.

I’ve seen comments from Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher talking about the impact irrigation has had in North Otago. He said: “Well you can see the new houses on the farms, the new people in the supermarket, the schools growing, sports numbers increasing – it’s obvious!”

Our support for irrigation

As a Government we are strong supporters of irrigation and water storage, and have signalled up to $400 million in total towards irrigation over time.

In the last two Budgets we have put $120 million towards Crown Irrigation Investments Ltd (CIIL), which makes independent decisions on major projects to invest in.

In the 2015 Budget the Government made $25 million in operating funding available for the Irrigation Acceleration Fund which helps to kickstart projects in earlier stages of development. 

This money is an investment in our regions, kick-starting projects that wouldn’t otherwise happen. And it is a commercial investment; the Crown expects to make a return.

A success story is the Central Plains Water irrigation scheme in Canterbury has received a total of $11.8 million in funding from the Government, and has the potential to create more than $1 billion in new economic activity.

Even if you’re not a farmer or a grower this has huge benefits. A study by Lincoln University shows that 10% of Christchurch’s total gross economic output comes from direct expenditure on farms in Selwyn and neighbouring Waimakariri District.

In 2012 we had 722,000 hectares under irrigation, of which 115,300 hectares had received some form of Crown funding.

We now have 276,500 hectares of land with Crown assisted irrigation schemes in progress, so we are on track to meet our goal of one million hectares by 2025.

Irrigation and the environment

What about the environmental impacts of increased irrigation?

What you don’t hear often is the real environmental benefits it can offer, with more consistent river flows in summer and reduced pressure on ground water sources.

Central Plains Water is another good example. 75-80% of the current groundwater takes in the scheme area will be replaced by surface and stored water once it is operating in September 2015.

This will improve water flows into Lake Ellesmere Te Waihora by an estimated 15-20 percent.

Increased river flows also means more water for recreational users in summer, and improved habitats for fish and birdlife.

A good example of this that when the Opuha dam nearly ran dry last year and streams dried up, fish had to be removed from dried up rivers and moved to irrigated rivers where they can survive.

The Opuha is an example of a water storage project that has economic, environmental and social benefits. As well as providing jobs and growth, and a habitat for fish, it also provides water for the Timaru urban area.

It’s also worth stressing that irrigation is not simply about dairy expansion. It offers opportunities for a variety of other industries, such as horticulture and small seed production, especially in Canterbury.

Not many people know that New Zealand produces 50% of the world’s radish seeds and 30% of the world’s carrot seeds.

Government support for more efficient agriculture

Science and technology are also helping us to use water and irrigation in much more efficient ways.

The Primary Growth Partnership involves the Government and industry co-funding cutting edge projects. A good example is “Pioneering to Precision”, led by Ravensdown, which is using drones and GPS to develop precision fertiliser applications for hill country farms. This will deliver real economic and environmental benefits.

Last month Steven Joyce announced the “Our Land and Water” National Science Challenge, which aims to enhance primary sector productivity while maintaining and improving land and water quality.

The National Science Challenges are dedicated to breaking new ground in areas of science that are crucial to New Zealand’s future. This important project receives funding of up to $96.9 million over 10 years.

It will be looking at new technologies like animal and plant genetics, new forage and feed, and studying dilution processes in soil and water.

We have also committed $1 million per year over the next three years to OVERSEER, an important software tool for farmers to improve their farms’ productivity, reduce nutrient leaching into waterways, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There is work to reduce sedimentation, including the Afforestation Grant Scheme which has almost $20 million to spend over five years incentivising more tree planting. We also have the Hill Country Erosion which provides $2.2 million a year, and various projects supported through the Sustainable Farming Fund.

Farmer efforts

As we talk about the steps ahead of us in water management today, it’s also worth having a look back at how far we’ve come.

Enormous efforts have gone into improving environmental practices by farmers and the Government over the last 15 years.

Dairy farmers have fenced off over 95% of their waterways. That’s more than enough fencing to go all the way from Tekapo to London.

Farmers have also spent over $1 billion on environmental investment over the last five years, according to a recent survey by Federated Farmers and DairyNZ.

Farmers and growers are up for the challenge. They are environmentalists; they want to leave the land in a better state than they found it.

They also know the importance of ‘social licence’ – of producing our products sustainably, bringing the community with us, earning their respect and understanding.

People need to know that we are good stewards of our land and sea.

Environmental performance across the sector is no longer a ‘nice to have’ - it’s a necessity for the New Zealand public and our global consumers.

Farmers, growers and fishers have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, but we need to keep improving and doing more.

Consumers are demanding more of us, both here and overseas. Shoppers at Waitrose Supermarkets and Chinese mums are demanding high quality food that is produced sustainably.

We need to sort out the poor performers, because they will drag our good reputation into the mud.

Next steps announced today

This is why during the last campaign we announced a new policy to bring in compulsory exclusion of dairy cattle on waterways by 2017. Today we are announcing the next steps in that plan.

The pollution aspect from stock getting access to waterways requires new national regulations.

The problem with each regional council making their own plans is that most have not done so, the rules on which stock are covered, what defines a river and what fences comply is different and enforcement is rare because of cumbersome prosecution processes.

These proposed regulations we are announcing today set a clear timetable starting with all dairy and pig farms by July 2017 and progressively including dairy support, beef and deer farms relative to steepness of country by 2030.

The fencing requirements are to be backed up by a new instant fine regime for non-compliance, with the option of a court prosecution for repeat and more serious offending.

As I’ve outlined, farmers have made great progress in fencing nearly 24,000 kilometres of waterways, but it is now time for regulation to bring the stragglers in line.

I want to commend the work of the Land and Water Forum and the farmer representatives involved who have done a good job of ensuring these proposed regulations are fair and practical.

This approach puts the priority on lowland intensive farming and recognises the impracticality for farmers fencing in some of New Zealand’s steep backcountry.

Technical efficiency standards

Another important proposal is that councils apply technical efficiency standards in catchments that are at, or approaching, full allocation of water.

These standards will define the amount of water that would be used by an efficient user in a specific climate, soil type and use. This includes irrigation for specific land uses, urban and hydro-generation.

For managing nutrient discharges we will work with stakeholders to develop Good Management Practice standards that will set measures such as the acceptable amount of nutrient discharges in different climates, soils, and uses.

The goal is to get all dischargers to implement industry agreed GMPs. This needs to apply to urban as well as rural land uses, because we all need to contribute. It is pointless playing the blame game and looking back over our shoulders.

To recognise the need to enable water to move more easily to higher value uses, we are also looking to better enable transfer of water permits and discharge allowances. 


The reforms we are announcing reflect a fundamental belief we have as a Government that we can have improved water quality and growth in agriculture at the same time.

It doesn’t have to be a choice between the economy or the environment; we can and must have both.

It won’t be easy and it will take time, but it can be achieved with better infrastructure, greater efficiency of water use and innovation in farming practices. Technology and goodwill will help deliver results for future generations to enjoy.