Wairarapa dam scheme could be another Ruataniwha

A proposed water storage scheme in Wairarapa that has had millions of public dollars spent on it is being described as a dud and compared to the stalled Ruataniwha dam scheme.

The backers of the Water Wairarapa dam project are counting on it to rejuvenate the region, but critics say it's another example of the Government's flawed irrigation policy.

So far $7 million to $10 million of Wellington ratepayer and taxpayer money has been spent to pay for Water Wairarapa's development, even though it does not yet have consent to build anything.

In its recent Budget, the Government said it will inject an extra $90 million into irrigation. That's on top of $400 million of public money already earmarked to help pay for big irrigation schemes.

Agriculture drives the Wairarapa economy, but the region is prone to drought.

For crop farmer Richard Kershaw, water is the one thing his business needs more than anything else. But he says he's lost contracts to growers in Canterbury because they have irrigation schemes that Wairarapa does not.

"We approached another company recently to help with the infrastructure in the Wairarapa and they said: 'Why would we come to the Wairarapa and invest… when we know we can go to Canterbury and they're looking for crops to grow there?'

"So obviously they'll go there because they've eliminated one of the risks straight away: water."

Michael Bassett-Foss heads the Water Wairarapa group. It wants to create three dams over two sites. Once complete, it would store 90 million cubic metres of water to irrigate an extra 30,000 hectares.

The cost of such infrastructure would be about $250 million and wouldn't be finished until 2040.

Michael Woodcock, from the Dam Free Wairarapa group says the Government, which has advocated for such land use across New Zealand, isn't going to criticise the plan.

"It's like asking a pig to vote for Sunday roast. They're not going to say it's not a good scheme."

Economist Peter Fraser - hired by Fish & Game to look at the project - says the economics of the scheme simply don't stack up, and never have.

"The simple reason is, the water price is too high."

"The problem we have here is a disconnect between the price that farmers can pay and the likely cost of the dam and what investors will want as a return.

"Alarm bells started to ring for us when we worked out that the price of water was so expensive that even dairy farmers can't afford it."

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