Ben Curry of Rangitata Diversion Race Management Limited


Surrounded on both sides by the windswept and barren foothills of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, the Rangitata Diversion Race Management Limited (RDRML) provides water to three irrigation schemes that serve a total of 95,000 hectares of irrigated pasture and farmland. Project construction began in 1937, at a time when the country sought to reinvigorate its economy out of the stark economic realities of the Great Depression with the promise of construction and agricultural jobs.


While the 67-kilometer run-of-the-river delivery system has served the region well over the last 80 years, it has lacked the stability and certainty of a storage facility to sustain supplies for the next 80 years. For the RDRML and its constituent schemes, the long-term solution is a 53-million-cubic-meter water storage facility.


The challenge of building support for and financing the construction of a large off-branch earthen dam and reservoir in a country where such projects are rare takes dedicated leadership. Leading the way is Ben Curry, RDRML’s chief executive officer.


After 23 years of service as a Royal Marine in the  United Kingdom and multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Curry was in search of a new occupation. After moving to New Zealand with his wife and family, he found his calling in a newspaper advertisement for an irrigation scheme. That was over 9 years ago. He has been guiding the RDRML ever since, employing his military and business leadership skills and a willingness to learn from experts and engineers to address RDRML’s challenges. Mr. Curry spoke with Irrigation Leader’s senior writer, John Crotty, to discuss the history of the proposed project, the challenges in obtaining funding, and the importance of establishing good relations with local communities.


John Crotty: Can you provide a brief history of your storage project and how it got started?


Ben Curry: The Rangitata Diversion Race is a run-of-the-river scheme with no associated storage. We have a reliable supply of water for our shareholders, but increasing demand has forced us to consider increasing the reliability of the system. Ultimately, it is for the shareholders, and they will be the ones making the investment in the project.


About 25 years ago, there was a proposal to build storage off one of the rivers that we draw water from, but it never came to fruition due to economic and political issues. The failure to build that large-scale storage has led the districts to embark on smaller projects that can store 1 to 2 days’ supply of water, but bulk storage is still needed. In the future, it is likely that climate change will lead to less snowpack in the mountains and, consequently, lower flows in the rivers, which will pose a risk to our supply systems. Social change may also force us to reduce our take from the rivers we rely on. This will erode our water baseline, which may compromise reliability.


Building storage mitigates some of these issues. Our stakeholders agree on the principle of building more storage but have some disagreement over how to pay for it.


John Crotty: What is the plan to fund the water storage project?


Ben Curry: There is virtually no government grant money available for projects like ours. The capital costs will have to be paid by those who invest in the project and those who want to benefit from it. The issue is not a shortage of funds, but whether people want to invest in the project. We are a relatively low-cost system and a fully depreciated asset. This means a farmer who is a shareholder will pay far less for our water than other schemes.


John Crotty: Can you talk about the possibility of moving water to the other side of the Rangitata River and expand the irrigated acres there?


Ben Curry: Part of the RDRML strategy is to be an enabler of irrigation, both in Mid Canterbury and beyond. Our infrastructure allows us to push water from the south to the north and vice versa, which is an asset that we can leverage to help other areas. We use a cooperative business model rather than a corporate one, but building the infrastructure to move water to the southern side of the Rangitata River will not be cheap. Someone will have to pay the cost along the way to allow us to complete that goal. We have been involved with Environment Canterbury [our state government] to find ways to provide water down there, and we believe we can, but it will depend on how much farmers down there want the water and are willing to pay for it.


John Crotty: Do you know how much acreage you would be able to serve if your efforts are successful?


Ben Curry: There are several different categories of acres. The type we are most focused on consists of about 8,000 hectares. The people there are predominantly groundwater users, and the state government has warned them that their ability to pump groundwater will decrease significantly with an expected increase in the minimum flow. This will diminish both the opportunity to pump water as well as the volume. Loss of water would harm the value of farm properties, so water users in that area are looking for other water options, but there are almost none, other than obtaining it from the Rangitata. But if we could store some water, we could supply it to them.


John Crotty: Beyond the potential for expanded acreage, have you received buy-in and support from local districts and communities?


Ben Curry: Most people seem to support it. We have made efforts to work collaboratively with local governments and the public during this process. They seem to appreciate that, even if they will not be investors in the project. Those who live immediately downstream of the proposed dam have some concerns about the project, but it is widely supported overall. However, we are still not certain how many of those supporters will actually invest in the effort. We still have a long way to go because we do not actually have a permit yet for the storage dam. We will present our case for the permit at a hearing in June. If we get a permit, the next stages of the process will include design and contracting, obtaining  funding, and construction. But it will be at least another  18 months before we are ready to start building, assuming  we can easily obtain the permits.


John Crotty: What challenges have you had to overcome to bring the project along thus far?


Ben Curry: Internally, we had to convince our board to sign off on the feasibility study to show that there were no fatal flaws in the proposed project. We then implemented a resource consent process, which to date has cost us $1 million and counting. There is some concern that we are overbuilding or overplanning in terms of volume, and some shareholders are telling us not to worry about any other users and just build the project to suit us. That is an option, but I believe that it will come back to haunt us later. Our consents come up for renewal every 25–30 years, and we need to protect that permit. Interconnecting ourselves with other users makes it easier to safeguard that interest and harder for someone to oppose our operations.


We have been conducting outreach with those who might otherwise have a more reserved position on irrigation, like environmental groups, local communities, and the indigenous Maoris, who are often concerned about the idea of taking water from the river. There have been a series of meetings and community gatherings to share our plans with people and find out what concerns or recommendations they have. The meetings have been productive overall and have helped establish a dialogue with community leaders that hopefully will convince them to both support and invest in our project going forward.

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