Politicians are promising to improve water quality within five years.
The council had proposed two plan changes, the first setting allocation limits for the Manuherikia and other catchments, then a second setting a new allocation regime in line with central Government’s National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, due to take effect in 2025.
However, the council has now, in a split decision, accepted a motion from councillor Michael Laws which sidelines the first stage in favour of a single plan-change process.
Otago Water Resource Users Group Manuherikia sub-group chairman Gary Kelliher says ORC chief executive Sarah Gardner had supported a “nominal” figure of 3.2 cumecs of water allocation for the Manuherikia Valley. However, Kelliher says 8-9 cumecs is used in the valley now and such a restriction would take millions of dollars out of the local economy.
It would also threaten the Falls Dam project, which plans to raise or rebuild the 1930’s-vintage Falls Dam in the Manuherikia headwaters and amalgamate and upgrade several small irrigation schemes downstream.
“What we’ve hopefully now done is diverted the chief executive and council away from thinking that 3.2 was possibly a target,” Kelliher told Rural News.
“It’s very unfortunate that they got so misguided in heading in that direction when it would just devastate this community and totally stymie everything that has been done to date.”
Kelliher says council officers are now preparing a paper on how to proceed, which he expected to go to the next full meeting, but he believes they can now get on with the process.
“Our water plan really has the bulk of this framework in place now, and the council would be quite capable of just getting on with it in a reasonably timely manner and it shouldn’t delay what they were thinking.
“The council is choosing to view it, I think, as something far more onerous and we’re waiting to see now what they will say in this paper that will go to the council [on November 7].”
Owen Shearer, a co-owner of the Leaning Rock Orchard, near Alexandra, said the proposed 3.2 cumecs restriction for the Manuherikia was a meaningless “historic number” which would take away 2000ha to 3000ha of irrigation from the valley.
“A huge amount of fruit comes out of here and every tree needs water,” Shearer says. “It’s a good place for growing fruit, but cut water back and we’re history. You can’t make water. But all we need is a guaranteed water supply.”
Shearer says the ORC approach was negative. He claims they had not done an economic study of what would happen with water loss, but the effects would be huge.
“Take economics away, take finance out of the valley and you take people out of the valley. It’s all backwards,” Shearer told Rural News.
“If the ORC invested in the valley in irrigation, it’s a positive. If they put a new dam in, they can lift the water in the river.”
He says Leaning Rock employs up to 200 people at the height of the cherry harvesting season.
Orchard manager Peter Bennie says irrigation is critical for Leaning Rock’s operation.
The orchard started 30 years ago on 20ha on lower, flood-and frost-prone land near the river, but then moved to a higher block as piped irrigation made it feasible. The orchard now covers 70ha of cherries, nectarines, peaches and apricots, with another bare 11ha still to be planted.
“This project only became possible really with the inception of pipes,” says Bennie. “Prior to that you could only grow fruit below water races and flood-irrigate. So pipes became affordable and you could pump water.”
With summer temperatures in the 30s, evaporative transpiration amounts to 11mm/day and Bennie says they need 1.2 times the transpiration rate nearing harvest when they are trying to fatten the fruit.
An environmental consultant working for irrigators, Susie McKeague, says that dragging out the process into two plan changes and two consent processes would have delayed environmental health outcomes as well as any certainty for irrigators.
“This process will provide surety for the community of the outcomes for the river ecology, recreational users and access to water for irrigators.”
She denies that irrigators are wanting everything their way.
“In fact, the process has barely begun and all we were asking is that ORC do the job once, in line with central Government requirements, and not put all the community through a very expensive series of plan changes.”