Provincial Growth Fund open to funding more dams amid drought concerns - despite scientist's warning

The Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) is open to financing more dams amid concerns Northland is on the brink of drought - despite warnings by a scientist against the practice. 

Shane Jones, the Regional Economic Minister who oversees the PGF, told Newshub the $3 billion fund will consider "water resilience projects" similar to the controversial Wairarapa dam that got $7.1 million from the PGF last week.  

It comes as Northland faces drought because of record low rainfall forcing farmers to face making a loss as summer feed crops fail. NIWA tweeted this week that a "meteorological drought has now emerged" in northern parts of the country. 

But Victoria University of Wellington Professor Dr Mike Joy has warned that dam infrastructure is "no solution" for drought. He says rather than mitigate climate change, dams "actually make farms less resilient". 

Dr Joy, who has a PhD in Ecology, was critical of the PGF money put towards the Wairarapa dam project last week. He said the development could drain natural waterways and create more water dependence.

His opposition led Jones to lash out at the scientist and label him "Dr Killjoy". 

Jones, a New Zealand First MP, said the PGF's offer to fund these sorts of projects is "not about large-scale irrigation for farmers, but about providing a safe and secure water supply for residents, businesses, market gardeners and all the industries that rely on it".

He said as more extreme weather events unfold due to climate change, having a "resilient water supply is going to become even more critical to the economic wellbeing of the regions and the health of their communities". 

Dr Joy argues that in order to fund the expensive cost of constructing a dam and the ongoing maintenance, a high price is put on water for irrigation and that for farmers to pay this added cost, they must "intensify".

"In most cases this is based on conversion to dairy farming... This leads to greater dependency on the water from the dam, and when water becomes scarce, farmers are at even more risk as they then have more animals and crops."

Peter Fraser, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Governance and Policy, is also criticising the Government's support of dam infrastructure, describing it in a Facebook post as "complete madness". 

Lower Nihotupu Dam, one of five reservoirs in the Waitakere Ranges that supply water to Auckland.
Lower Nihotupu Dam, one of five reservoirs in the Waitakere Ranges that supply water to Auckland. Photo credit: Watercare

"I find it interesting that politicians (and farming interests) have huge problems doing anything meaningful about reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions (hey, let's plant pines...) yet find it incredibly easy to spend public money to build concrete edifices to 'mitigate' the same."

His reference to "pines" is about the Government's One Billion Trees programme - also overseen by Jones as Forestry Minister - which has also attracted controversy

Greenpeace is concerned about dams' impact on climate change, and is disappointed the Government is continuing to support irrigation despite a promise not to.

It's written in Labour's confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party that the Government will work towards improved water quality, while winding down support for irrigation.

Jones said the Government is committed to tackling environmental degradation and that the dam infrastructure facilities are a "practical approach". 

The infrastructure in Wairarapa aims to "provide a resilient freshwater supply for the area", and will be able to hold 18 million cubic metres of water with the capacity to irrigate 10,000 hectares.

NIWA is warning that rainfall has been "well below normal" across New Zealand much of January - as much as 50 percent less. December also brought "drier than normal" conditions. 

Jones said it's "almost as if we've written out human wellbeing from these debates pertaining to climate and to biodiversity".