sign uplog in
Want to go ad-free? Find out how, here.

Bruce Wills wonders why it is not an issue when cities store water to cover dry periods but some see it as a threat when rural NZ does

Bruce Wills wonders why it is not an issue when cities store water to cover dry periods but some see it as a threat when rural NZ does
Cosseys Dam in the Hunua Ranges, part of Auckland's water supply system.

By Bruce Wills*

The challenge with agriculture is that our industry is heavily reliant on factors that are out of our control.

The weather, exchange rates and commodity prices are all very important parts of our business, but they are things we have little or no control over.

The erratic nature of farming means an unpredictable economy for all New Zealanders.

What the industry needs is the ability to harness the things we can control, to make the unpredictable more predictable.

I am talking about harnessing water.

When the droughts come, it is tough on our industry; farmer’s battle dust and moisture deficits and the financial scars of serious droughts can be slow to heal. Even in town it is tough.

Weather patterns are changing we are told so we need to look at ways we can minimise the impacts of what may become increasingly regular dry spells.

After returning from World Water Week in Stockholm, where 2700 attendees came from across the globe, I quickly realised how lucky we are in New Zealand.

On a gigalitre-per-km2 basis, New Zealand gets 4 times the annual rainfall as Australia and 2½ times the rainfall as the United Kingdom, yet we let 95 percent of this flow out to sea unused by man or animal. This astounded conference attendees who were envious of the quantity and overall quality of our water.

So why is it that harnessing and storing one of the very things that can save our bacon, when times are dry, is seen as a threat by some New Zealanders?

Having a reliable source of water just makes sense and equally so, storing water in times of plenty and using in times of shortage is surely good business practice.

In fact councils all over New Zealand do this to ensure reliable water for their urban residents.

We have seen how it has turned provinces around, where water has created jobs and grown communities. Certainty and reliability makes for good business.

It concerns me to watch rural communities struggle during droughts as well as the lost opportunity of all this water running out to sea.


Farms For Sale: the most up-to-date and comprehensive listing of working farms in New Zealand, here »

This year’s drought saw a trade deficit for the August quarter, a near one and a half-billion dollar fall in exports compared to the previous year. With farming earning well over half of New Zealand’s total export receipts all New Zealanders suffer when farming suffers.

There is a trade off in everything we do and if trade declines we are all the poorer for it. As a trading nation we are dependent upon a hungry world to buy our food.

What keeps me awake at night is the uncertainty around whether we are able to keep up our food production with a world population expected to hit 9.3 billion in the year 2050. Water is a key part of New Zealand meeting this growing demand for food.

It is critical that we maintain our reputation as reliable food producers and having reliable water sources is a key part of New Zealand harnessing a sustainable future.


Bruce Wills is Federated Farmers President

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


Having a reliable source of water just makes sense and equally so, storing water in times of plenty and using in times of shortage is surely good business practice.
In fact councils all over New Zealand do this to ensure reliable water for their urban residents.
We have seen how it has turned provinces around, where water has created jobs and grown communities. Certainty and reliability makes for good business.
Why don't those that collect the rewards not wish to pay outright for such water infrastructure just as urban residents are required to do through their rates demands?
Chinese company Shanghai Pengxin Group has launched a takeover bid for Canterbury dairy farmer Synlait Farms, in association with two of Synlait's founders.
Their joint venture SFL Holdings has made a takeover offer of $85.7 million or $2.10 a share for Synlait, whose shares trade on the Unlisted market.
Synlait Farms founders Maclean, Penno and Ben Dingle, who control a combined 50.2 per cent of the company's shares, have committed to accept the offer. Read more
Maybe there should be claw back clauses when foreigners get to employ infrastructure already paid for with state and rate payer subsidies?

Its because farms use a lot more water than towns. One dairy farmer in the Manawatu uses more water than Palmerston north. Its hard to get your head around the volumes of water irrigation requires. Many farmers are putting on over 400mm a hectare. Around me, one farmer pumps over 300 liters a second from two bores. Farm water use is just enormous compared to urban use. The dam required for town water is tiny compared to the huge infrastructure expenditure needed to build lakes to support dairy farms where water is often sprayed on grass, the least efficient use.

Just to give an idea of the disparity - Irrigation accounted for 77% of New Zealand's allocated water use in 2006 while public water supply accounted for 9%. (Source  .

And the economics of irrigating pasture don't stack up. At least not according to Treasury:
But our Bruce is so much smarter at economics - fully equiped to quote FF/HBRC ideology but apparently not willing to debate the economics of water storage for agriculture.

Hmmmm... Papers obtained under the Official Information Act show Treasury also thought a forecast lift in economic growth from new irrigation schemes would come mainly through activity related to building them.
And to hell with the legacy debts owed by the citizens and farmers

You realise that is just a media article and not an official report?  It quotes the Ruataniwha scheme as a $600 million dollar project which is incorrect because the project is only $265 million so how much of the rest of the article is incorrect?

$600 million is pretty close to the mark. There is $350 million of farm expenditure required on top the $265 million.

Please send the link to explain how this is calculated?

The bottom 5 reports:
Conversion costs are understated.

Good point. The actual proportions of water use between irrigation and town surprised me when I looked at the doc that Julienz linked below. And water sprayed onto pasture is an inefficient method anyway, when compared to flooding, which would be ideal. All those small droplets means that a significant proportion is evaporated before it reaches the soil, especially in dry windy conditions. The ideal way would be to get sheets of water on the ground as quickly and cleanly as possible, rather than chucking it through the air. I guess land topography and general convenience are why current irrigator designs are used so often.
Perhaps, longer term, we might consider a less water-intensive method of dairy farming. What about using more heat and drought-resistant breeds more often (i.e. Brahmans for beef, although they have a bad temper, and Sahiwal for milk), or at leasting pointing more breed vectors in that direction? More Zebu breeds in NZ might be a possibility.
One of the issues with dairy farming is that it's so often on the edge of the land's capability, in terms of herd density. In other words, it's all right in spring and early summer when the grass is growing faster than it can be eaten, but at other times needs propping up significantly with external food supplies or irrigation-assisted grass. And there's often little fat built into the management system of many farms, so if you have a sub-par year of rainfall, like at the beginning of this year, then there's real trouble.

Nah.  If you're a corporate farmer, with a farm portfolio which has a mix of upland and downland, irrigated and not, bush gullied or grass paddocks, ya just shifts 'em round to suit the season.  Part of farm and stock sense, aided of course by sensors up the wazoo.  GPS.  Moisture. Soil type.  Altitude.  Feed budgets.  Supplements.  Crop-on-farm inventory. Emissions.  Water throughput.  Electricity.  Lotta things to measure and manage, all being done, right now, by farmers and managers.
I suspect a few of dese common taters should be looking at FarmIQ and other initiatives which aim to measure, then manage and optimise/trade-off, fairly much everything.
Including of course optimising irrigation - you'd be surprised how much software (= the distilled intelligence of many people and soil types and altitudes and seasons)  there is in controlling them long pipe long, of course, as ya keeps 'em upright.

Ok, that makes sense. The perfect blend of science, technology, and management, all held together with information.
I guess I'm basing my ideas on working a couple of seasons on a riverland farm in the mid 1990's, when most of the technology was 'dumb', there was not much in the way of structured information and data, and some of the practices a bit iffy! Good to know how far the cutting edge has come since then.

That farmer might use more water, but others don't.

I used to use 500 litres a day to keep plant clean, two washes, one rinse in each, one hot wash in each.  And we re-use the wash water to do the next rinse.  20 cups shed, so that's about 12 litre per set.
 Vat wash alternate days, 400 litres, rinse once, hot wash once.

the new sanitiser rules introduced "at the behest of our customers" (ie you) means every wash gets followed by 300 litres of filtered water.

We use 1.4 m3 water to wash the outside of the plant, and to wash the concrete yard. as per MPI orders.  I'd like to add recycling green water phases to cut this in half but it's expensive, and will have to paid for by borrowing.

A milking cow drinks 70 litres a day (compared to 2 litres for humans, BUT when allowing for humans you have to give 100 litres PER HUMAN!!).  However I think it is fair to say the cows have an inherent right to life and thus to their water.

3 humans on this supply. (300 litres)

No irrigation.

So the milk that comes from my farm, costs 500 (plant) + 200 (vat) + 300 (morning clean rinse) + 1,400 (washdown) + 300 (humans) = 2,700 liters or 27 humans worth, 9 households.    The cows consume 160 * 70 = 11,200 litres maximum (although I could check the water meter) but they drink all of it to stay alive, stocking rate is 2.5/hectare, so not undue amount of density of farming, with no pads apart from dairy shed yard. 

I think that's pretty good consumption water-wise, and as I say I'd love to put the humans on rain-collection in their winteringbarns and introduce greywater re-use in their toilets, and recycle the washwater at cowshed (save 700 litre/day). but those all take extra cash which with Fonterra looking like a sub-6 payout, and a 7+% interest rate, isn't going to happen!

Talking of water the very young Boyan Slat has just won a Delft University of Technology best technical design award 2012 with his incredible invention.

This nitwit Bruce Wills should not be in charge of a farm.  He is unhappy with any water running out to sea.  Well discussed on is that the water is taking salts away.  Which is why the sea is saltly.  He thinks it shocking any water gets away at all.
He would pour all the salt on the farms instead.
Of course there is a balance.  We do have some irrigation that is useful and there are opportunities for more to be done - when it is right.
But his level of argument indicates he should get another job in another industry, where he could do less harm.

Degree of impact, and who pays.
So provided NZ's ecology doesnt suffer and provided farmers pay for it I have no huge issues with water being stored by farmers.
I do however have issues with ratepayers or tax payers paying for infrastructure for farmers to use, or if there is significant damage to the country due to the unsuitable choicies farmers chose to make.
Even simpler, if its going to be drier, farm in an approprate and sustainable way, that needs no huge capital investment and no damage.

"What keeps me awake at night is the uncertainty around whether we are able to keep up our food production with a world population expected to hit 9.3 billion in the year 2050"
Dont let it keep you awake, we wont and it wont.
Fossil fuel for transport use will in effect be gone by 2050, its peaking about now (+/- 5 years) and will decline.  That means costs to produce food are going a lot higher, as is costs to transport it and ppl wont be able to pay that. So hungry they will be indeed and worse, dead.
Nature will take its course as we declined to do so first.
Have you never looked at the about of fossil fuel your farm uses? you comment on water as an issue but blindly ignore oil?

Wasnt oil supposed to be peaking in the 1970's?

No, it was US production that was predicted to peak then (which it did in 1970 as seen in this graph). Most predictions of world oil production estimated the peak would occur between 2000 - 2020.

Peak in conventional oil (cheap and returning a lot of energy) was in 2005. The run up in oil prices in the mid 2000's was largely the resuts of this event. Currently the unconventional oil plays are coming online but with high decline rates (when compared with conventional) it is unlikely that they will continue to offset the declines in conventional oil in the long-term. US tight oil for example is likely to peak ~2020 based on preliminary studies. Whatever happens, I think it's probably a sensible guess that fuels are unlikely to get cheaper in the future.

You are American by chance? in which case, yes.  Otherwise no.
MKH predicted peaking of the USA in the 1970s while in the 1950s and projected world peak as 1999.  Which if you look at the growth trajectory pre 1970s oil crisis would have been smack on. Instead "expensive" energy caused us to use less so the peak was 2006 or so.  Not a bad bit of maths 50 years before hand.
If you are thinking of that brand new car, make it an EV or a hybrid instead of a Falcon.

Thing is Bruce, that water you are wanting to store, should by nature be travelling to the sea, and how much do you think should be allowed to take its natural course, not a lot I would imagine.
Thing is you see, we can store some water for our small (and hopefull remaining that way) population but effectively we are trying to supply water, via meat and milk admittedly, to many more times our population
There is only so much nature can do, either a lot for a short while or a steady supply but not so much for a longer while, which sounds more sustainable to you

Thing is Raegun, that wood you are wanting to cut down from its pure ecosystem in a nice plantation, and saw up and use to build a Hoose, should by nature be travelling back to the Great Mother Earth, and how much do you think should be allowed to take its natural course, not a lot I would imagine.
Thing is Raegun, that grass seed you are wanting to harvest from its ecosystem in a nice paddock, and grind up to make into Bread , should by nature be travelling back to Great Mother Earth, and how much do you think should be allowed to take its natural course, not a lot I would imagine.
Thing is Raegun, that cattle beast you are wanting to truck away from its happy family in a nice field, and slit its throat and chop its good bits off to make Burgers with, should by nature be travelling back to Gaia's Cow Heaven, and how much do you think should be allowed to take its natural course, not a lot I would imagine.

So what are you saying that we should stop the rivers flowing to the sea. There is only so much the land can supply and THAT will have to be addressed whether you like it or not, whether I like it or not, so that is pretty much just an argument from you to exploit exploit exploit and to hell with the consequences, there is a limit are we are about at it in many ways, already.
All the trees that you talk of have replaced natural forest, all the grass you talk of has replaced naturanl forest all the cows you talk of have replaced natural forest, don't you think we've done enough. 

Harvesting flood flows is not the same as 'stopping rivers flowing to the sea'.
Natural forest?  That went (in Canterbury, on the plains) in the great 14-16th century burnoffs by whoever was around then.  Replaced by the tall-tussock and spear-grass cover, burnt off by early European settlers in the 19th century, replaced by the great diversity ya sees now: 

  • horticulture,
  • seeds (Canterbury produces 50% of the world's carrot seed...),
  • crop,
  • dairy,
  • small and large towns,
  • plantations, and so on.

So them Natural Trees haven't existed for half a millenium, here, anyways.  Ya can still see a few totara burnt logs up in top of Flagstaff, I was told half a century ago.
Oh, and the Canterbury rivers have supported stock races and minor irrigation for 130 years.
Local history and local knowledge - beats lazy generalisations every time, huh?

NZ consists of more than Canterbury and yes I know the moa hunters did a good job of clearing the place all that time ago.
Difference today is we now know better.
If the land was being used for things that it is better suited for, which is probably not dairying such huge amounts of water are not needed.
70 litres of water to produce one litre of milk, I think even you can see a better use of wate

The audience on here are sophisticated enough to understand a half decent business case from a few 30 second sound bites. If Wills is championing the Ruataniwha dam; what is the business case in simple terms? How much will it cost to build; how much to run?
Who benefits, and by how much, how frequently?
Who then should pay; assuming there is a business case that remotely stacks up? (Previously on here, Hawkes Bay farmers have said, rightly or wrongly, that it is the supidest dam they ever heard of, that the area hardly ever has a drought, and the cost of paying for it would far outweigh any likely benefit). 
Wills needs to do better; or frankly an article like this is somewhat embarrassing.

The trouble is all that hoarded water will likely be used for dairying, perhaps the single most wasteful use for it imaginable.

Central Hawkes Bay has had 5 droughts or extremely dry spring summer autumn periods in the last seven years.  In case you didnt see the news 200 farmers and business people converged on the regional council to support the dam.  You really should do a bit more research to make it sound like you know at least a little about what you are commenting on.

Horticulture and orcharding are good uses of stored water, dairy farming is not. Shall we just wait and see how many dairy farm conversions there might be after this is done

I would support the dam too, as long as someone else was paying for it. We had  two very dry years and then last year, which was a one in 70 year drought.  The dam is designed to cope with a 1 in 10 year drought, delivers water at a cost of .25 cent a m3, thats about $1000 a hectare before on farm delivery costs. We have to pay for the water whether we use it or not, so most of the last 10 years i would be paying for water i wasn't going to use, making it incredibly expensive when I did. There are good dams in NZ, the Ruataniwha is not one of them. Those that turned up, that are actually in the scheme of which there where not many, need to do some maths, fast.
 Personally I survived last year without too much damage, I managed to buy cattle  cheaper in mid-winter than they were in the spring and we had a very mild winter and kind spring. I kept my barns full of hay which sold well, i invested in a new water system and always have some stock I can unload.  I do have some pasture damage but by this summer everything should look normal again.

Well, then, if we are going to continue to allow farms to be unaffordable to NZers and continue to allow them to be sold to cashed up non resident foreigners, how about we make it a condition of purchase that they stump up a hefty propertion of such schemes.
My huge problem with it all is that it all seems to dovetail nicely into Stephen Joyces plans to double dairy output which I think is about the worst possible reason to hoard precious water. 70 litres of water to produce one litre of milk when we are talking about a worldwide water shortage is just lunacy in my view.

I would have thought nearly a hundred farmers signing up to the scheme is many.  The dam is not just about surviving a drought.  It is about giving farmers more options.  They could grow crops that they wouldnt otherwise wouldnt plant because of the risk of no rain.  There is defintiely many ways to earn a living from farms.  Irrigation is one of them and gives farmers options and tools to earn more.  To say the famrers need to do their maths fast is assuming you know your maths a lot more than them.  I would argue that you aren't better than many of them let alone all of them.  Hawkes Bay is a summer dry area.  If you can create a policy where you can produce over that summer dry period with water and make money from it you are going to need it nearly every year and the climate change predictions are for it to get drier.

A lot of existing farmers are very good at maths, thats why they won't sign up. No one has signed up, not a single farmer. The people that need to do the maths are the enthusiastic ones who are not even in the scheme who keep drumming up support with no ' skin in the game'.
We were asked for expressions of interest, which we then had to sign, as they put us on a 5 year consents(used to be 10), told us once the water from the dam was allocated that was it.
 The dam is small, the water flows the HBRC have presented look dodgy.  Its only designed to cope with a one in 10 year drought.
 100 farmers have not signed up. Its simply not true, they have expressed interest.
  There is alot of irrigation in CHB at present but much of the water has been poorly allocated.
 The price of water at .25cents a m3, is just too expensive, for any agricultural use. After delivery expenses its $1600 a hectare every year use it or not.
 Ive grown a lot of crop, enlighten me on the new ones Im going to be growing. Remember Ive lost peas on boxing day from frost and pumkins too. look at the amount of apples that have been pulled out in the area over the past few years. Nothing to do with water. More to do with high costs and frosts.

"one in 70 year drought" hold that thought....
Lets see how many years it is before another "one in 70 year drought"

This astounded conference attendees who were envious of the quantity and overall quality of our water.
They may well have been astounded but possibly because what you were saying was not true.
As is this statement that John Key also quotes:
We let 95 percent of rainfall flow out to sea unused by man or animal.
That implies only 5% of rainfall doesn't flow out to sea.
In the Tukituki catchment even before any water is taken for irrigation 55% of rainfall doesn't make it out to sea.
With the Makaroro catchment (source for the Ruataniwha Water Supply) the intention is that less than 20% of rainfall will flow out to sea.

"sustainable future" so you have sucummed to the new catch phrase of the day.....its a pity you dont understand what would go into that.
Then you are still busy denying AGW you have a long road to travel, and you have hobbled yourself and added blinkers. I'd wish you good luck but really what you want damages my future.

Are you advocating an unsustainable future? Or did I read your comment wrong?

Progress once the most extreme manifestation of radical optimism and a promise of universally shared and lasting happiness,has moved all the way to the opposite,dystopian and fatalistic pole of anticipation; it now stands for the threat of relentless and inescapable change that instead of auguring peace and respite portents nothing but continuous crisis and strain and forbids a moment of rest. Progress has turned into a sort of endless and uninterrupted  game of musical chairs in which a moment of inattention results in irreversible defeat and irrevocable exclusion.  Instead of great expectations and sweet dreams,'progress' evokes an insomnia full of nightmares a of being 'left behind'- of missing the train, or falling out of the window of of a fast accelerating vehicle.

                                                                                                                    Zygmunt Bauman.

Wow, that is not bad. That just about explains what I feel sort of instinctively about "progress" without being able how to figure out how to put it into words. I am going to save that.
I do hold out a little hope among the coming generations, who are removing the wool from their own eyes one by one, and may well abandon much of this "progress" in exchange for a little more holistic lifestyle.