Irrigation New Zealand

One of New Zealand’s foremost experts in water management and irrigation has been recognised with an award from IrrigationNZ.

Dr Terry Heiler’s career has spanned 50 years and has seen him working in over twenty countries, and picking up two previous prestigious awards. Dr Heiler is now retired and lives near West Melton.

Dr Heiler was born Australia and gained a Civil Engineering Degree with the University of New South Wales. In 1967 he arrived in New Zealand. He initially worked for the NZ Agricultural Engineering Institute where he built a team of soil and water researchers. In 1982 he was appointed Director of the Institute. It worked to introduce new irrigation technology to New Zealand like drip irrigation, and pioneer new computer based design methods for storing flood runoff for irrigation.

In 1990, Dr Heiler established his own consultancy firm specialising in natural resources. He carried out a range of local and international work for both public and private sector clients.

Dr Heiler also led the establishment of Lincoln International Ltd, a business enterprise tasked with marketing the research resources of Lincoln University and the wider agricultural community in the Lincoln area to international aid and development projects.

Dr Heiler’s specialist expertise and leadership ability was acknowledged in his appointment to government advisory boards on External Aid and Development (of which he served as Chairman), and to the National Infrastructure Advisory Committee. He has also served on the Landcare Research Board and as Chairman of WoolPro, Eco-link and Tectra, and on the Regional Committee of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.

He also led Lincoln University’s expansion into commercial research and development, transforming a number of organisations into LinLink, establishing Lincoln Ventures (now known as Lincoln Agritech Ltd). Dr Heiler left the university in 1993 to focus on international consultancy projects.

In 2006 he was appointed Chief Executive of Irrigation New Zealand. At the time he joined IrrigationNZ, farmers, schemes and water user groups had no overarching organisation.

“The government and regional councils wanted to talk to one organisation about water policy issues so there was a need for a national representative organisation. It also seemed clear that there was going to be more need to engage with scientific and environmental groups and IrrigationNZ allowed this to happen,” he says.

Dr Heiler’s job was to lead the promotion of best practice across New Zealand’s irrigation industry in water management and water efficiency and to provide scientific and technical advice to Government and Regional Councils.

Today, Dr Heiler continues to see irrigation as “absolutely essential if New Zealand is to meet the market challenges of the future.”

Dr Heiler has been involved in around 40 projects in 20 different countries. His work has involved acting as a consultant on the design and build of irrigation systems. He has also worked on feasibility and investment proposals, developing policy, restoring flood damaged irrigation schemes, designing flood mitigation projects, and peer reviewing proposals.

In 1987 Dr Heiler was awarded the Crawford Reid Memorial Award of the United States Irrigation Association. The award honours individuals who have significantly advanced the irrigation industry and irrigation techniques and procedures outside of the United States. To date, Dr Heiler is the only New Zealander to have received this award.

In 2013, Dr Heiler was awarded the Bledisloe Medal by Lincoln University. This award recognises those who have made an outstanding contribution to their chosen field of expertise, advanced New Zealand's interests, or brought credit to Lincoln University.

Dr Heiler says that in most areas of the world, sorting out water allocation can be very complex as rivers cross international borders. This means that New Zealand is much better placed to manage water than most other countries, however we are still struggling to resolve many issues in the economic/environmental space.

“Irrigation in New Zealand is much more advanced than in many other countries. Because our agricultural sector is exposed to the market, farmers are used to trying out new technology to help them do things more efficiently,” he says. “They want to learn how to improve their operations. The interest farmers have in new technology, training and seeing what their neighbours are up to never ceases to amaze me.”

Dr Heiler says that New Zealand has a very adversarial system for managing water which has led to some poor outcomes through the judicial system. “Most of the farmer costs have been gathered by the law profession, with little benefit to anyone. We need to learn to work together in a less adversarial way. Changing policies linked to the political cycle are also unhelpful. A longer term and bipartisan view would provide more clarity,” he adds.