Irrigation New Zealand

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16th August 2017

IrrigationNZ is further challenging Labour’s plan to tax water used for irrigation to fund the clean-up of rivers after an analysis of the latest Ministry for the Environment data on water quality showed rivers in areas with irrigation are more swimmable than elsewhere.

The analysis undertaken by IrrigationNZ has compared irrigated area with river quality data for swimming by region. Graphics and maps can be found here.

The data on river quality and irrigation were provided today to Labour’s spokesperson for the Environment David Parker and Primary Industry spokesperson Damien O’Connor at a meeting at Parliament with IrrigationNZ Chair Nicky Hyslop and CEO Andrew Curtis.

Least swimmable rivers in the Auckland region

“By far the region with the least swimmable water was Auckland where 62% of rivers were graded as poor. Auckland was also the only region to have no rivers graded as good or excellent for swimming. The rivers with the worst quality were located within or close to the city’s urban area,” says IrrigationNZ Chief Executive Andrew Curtis.

“Labour was clear that money from this tax would not be used to fund urban waterway improvements so will the tax actually result in improvements where they are most needed?”

Over 80% of New Zealand’s irrigated land is located in Canterbury, Otago, Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay. However, only 4% of Canterbury rivers and 8% of Otago rivers have poor river quality for swimming. This drops to 1% for Hawkes Bay and Marlborough. In fact all New Zealand regions with high levels of irrigation had fewer rivers graded poor for swimming than the New Zealand average.  For example, Marlborough has New Zealand’s third highest proportion of irrigated land, yet has very clean rivers – with 90% of rivers graded as excellent or good for swimming.

By contrast, the country’s least suitable rivers for swimming are located in areas with the least irrigated land. After Auckland, Northland and Waikato had the highest percentage of rivers graded poor for swimming. In both regions less than 1% of their land area is irrigated.

Will tax result in improved rivers?

“Labour has clarified that the irrigation tax would be spent within the same region it is collected from.  We would question whether the tax would raise enough money in areas with poor river swimmability to make the improvements promised,” Mr Curtis says.

“For example if $64 million was raised nationally from the tax, Canterbury would receive $41 million of this to spend in its region. However Northland would only receive $700,000 yet it has some of the least swimmable rivers in New Zealand, with 48% of rivers graded poor for swimmability, and only 4% of rivers classified as good or excellent.”

Poorer quality rivers not generally correlated with irrigation

IrrigationNZ also looked at data from the Ministry for the Environment on a range of other key measures of river health including clarity, nitrogen and phosphorus concentration and macroinvertebrate scores and compared these to irrigated land by region.

“When you look at the data it shows that poorer quality rivers are not generally correlated with high irrigation areas. There are a number of locations throughout the country such as Auckland, Waikato and Southland which have low amounts of irrigated land but poor river health. The exception to this would be nitrate levels in Canterbury which are high, but they are also high in a number of other locations with low irrigation,” Mr Curtis says.

“We acknowledge that irrigated land use is one factor which can impact on river health and irrigators are working hard to reduce the impact of their activities meeting strict new requirements such as nutrient discharge limits, irrigation efficiency, riparian protection – through the implementation of audited Farm Environment Plans. However, overall the data simply doesn’t support the idea that irrigation is the sole driver behind poor river quality,” he adds. “This is a misperception that has been heavily promoted to the New Zealand public that  is simply not true.”

“We would like to see more people join a discussion over whether a tax on irrigation is fair and how it would impact on the community and ultimately on jobs. Last week we asked Labour 16 questions about how the water tax would work and what it’s impact will be. Kiwis deserve to have this information before they vote so we’ll keep asking questions until they are answered. Our meeting today has clarified some issues, but there are many questions that still need to be answered.”

For background on river quality also see the Ministry for the Environment Our Fresh Water 2017 report.

Contact: Andrew Curtis, CEO, IrrigationNZ, 027 496 6314.


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