Large-scale irrigation in New Zealand began in the late 19th century. During the Great Depression of the 1930's, several large-scale storage and irrigation projects, such as the Rangitata Diversion Race, were built using government funding. The majority of major schemes were constructed after 1960 in the Canterbury and Central Otago regions.
The following map shows government-owned irrigation schemes prior to 1989, and the number of hectares they irrigated. It excludes on-farm irrigation owned by private individuals or entities.
The rationale for government involvement in developing, subsidising and maintaining community irrigation schemes changed from period to period.
- Between 1910 and 1935. New Zealand government involvement followed the history of government assistance of irrigation by colonial governments in Australia. Policies aimed to mitigate drought, take advantage of existing water rights and reclaim mining land.
- After 1935, the first Labour government expanded the irrigation programme to boost employment and make greater use of the water resource.
- In the 1950's, a Select Committee concluded that direct government intervention was necessary because individual farmers could not obtain the required finance, technology and labour, despite concerns being raised about the financial implications of the schemes.
- From the 1960's to 1980's, community schemes were increasingly viewed as a farm management tool to intensify agricultural production, and new irrigation schemes were justified as being in the national interest by virtue of having economy wide benefits.
- In 1987, questions were raised about the national benefit and central government's ability to manage and recover costs. A risk that government intervention could distort incentives and crowd out private investment also became apparent.
- In 1988, central government began to transfer ownership of the Crown schemes to farmers. No schemes now remain in Crown ownership.In 1991, responsibility for approving schemes was devolved to local government under the Resource Management Act 1991. Central government instead focused its efforts on funding science and technology development, and on facilitating the planning and proposal development process, through initiatives such as the Sustainable Farming Fund and the Community Irrigation Fund.
Several major schemes have been developed since devolution, including Opuha (1998, 16,000 ha), Waimakariri (1999, 18,000ha), North Otago Stage 1 (2006, 10,000ha), and the Wai-iti Valley Augmentation Dam (800,000m 3), which also opened in 2006.
The sharply contrasting ways in which community irrigation schemes in New Zealand were developed and managed before and after 1990 illustrate the operation of decentralised vis-a-vis centralised (planning) industry governance systems. While the evidence is not easily quantifiable, what evidence there is suggests that the shift to a decentralised system that took place about 1990 coincides with improved irrigation efficiency. Today, farmer owned companies - rather than State owned - are responsible and accountable for scheme development and management. In combination with the RMA - which enables a decentralised approach to resource use - this has facilitated innovation in scheme design, more efficient management, and better water use. It has also revealed more precisely the value of water in irrigation. This decentralised system has also highlighted the difficulties for many communities to raise early commitment and funding to determine the viability.
National Infrastructure Plan - March 2010 Part 3 - Facts and Issues, Sectoral Analysis, Rural water infrastructure.
Gudgeon, J., Physical stock accounts for Water, Key Statistics, Statistics New Zealand, August 2004
White, P.A., Sharp, B.M.H., and Reeves, R.R. 2004. 'New Zealand Water Bodies of National Importance for domestic and industrial use IGNS contract report 2004/12 prepared for Ministry of Economic Development, Wellington'.
Nimmo-Bell report (2000) cited in internal MAF background paper, 2004 "Water in New Zealand Agriculture: Resilience and Growth".
The Audit Office (1987) Report of the Audit Office: Ministry of Works and Development: Irrigation Schemes (Wellington: Government Printer).