Mid Canterbury has a proud history of innovative and sustainable food production, achievable through the availability of productive soils, a temperate climate, good water resource, and strong family farming businesses with highly skilled and adaptable people. Irrigated farms in the district have enjoyed more resilience in their businesses and had the ability to adapt to changing market demands and produce high quality food without being exposed to drought. Over many generations this backdrop has created a strong community and a vibrant agricultural support industry based around the town of Ashburton.
The Mid Canterbury water story has its genesis in the development of the Rangitata Diversion Race (RDR) in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The Government’s job creation scheme developed a large canal spanning between the Rangitata and Rakaia Rivers, leaving a legacy for the district to develop, innovate, and produce high quality food. By the 1980’s the three irrigation schemes reliant on the RDR for water supply were almost fully developed and spanned some 70,000 ha of the 250,000 ha in the district.
At the same time, new well drilling technology was allowing water abstraction from underground aquifers in the lower parts of the district. This source of irrigation water continued to grow strongly up to the early 2,000’s, with deeper wells being drilled in the upper plains as technology improved. Combined with the RDR scheme delivery the district now irrigated around 75% of its productive flat land.
However there were some areas in the district that did not have access to RDR scheme water, and could not access good groundwater supplies. The groundwater resource in much of the district was also determined to be fully allocated, and in parts over allocated. This platform saw the entry of BCI to provide water to areas that had previously not had access to it.
BCI had its origins in two separate farmer groups seeking to source water for the Barrhill and Chertsey areas. With the obvious source of water being the strong Rakaia River, Barrhill Chertsey Irrigation Limited was formed as a farmer owned co-operative company in 1998 and in 2001 was granted a consent to abstract 17 cumecs of water from the river and irrigate 40,000 ha in Mid Canterbury. Nearly a decade of developmental challenges ensued, and BCI delivered its first irrigation water in 2010.
The initial BCI development was an example of collaboration within a community. BCI formed a joint venture with local electricity lines co-operative Electricity Ashburton Limited in late 2009, and that joint venture developed the first BCI irrigation infrastructure in 2010. The joint venture also licensed 3 cumecs of water to the Acton Scheme which was developed in the same year on the back of existing stock water infrastructure east of Rakaia.
The joint venture entered contractual arrangements with Trustpower Limited to install and operate river intake, fish screening, and pumping facilities to deliver the water from the Rakaia River to the RDR using some of the existing Highbank Power Station facilities. Water swap arrangements were also entered into with RDR Management Limited to facilitate the delivery of water to the BCI buffer ponds in the upper plains. BCI installed a piped distribution network from those buffer ponds and that delivers pressurised water to irrigator customers. The joint venture structure allowed BCI to install significant overbuild in the pipe network, most of which has been subsequently utilised.
The variation to the Rakaia River Conservation Order in 2013 was a significant enhancement for the scheme. The Trustpower Limited initiative provided for Lake Coleridge, under their management, to be utilised for storing unused consented irrigation water and releasing it when river flows are below the scheduled minimum. BCI irrigators have enjoyed high levels of reliability of supply since that time, resulting in reduced water use on farm because of confidence in supply.
In 2015 BCI embarked on its next big development installing a new Rakaia River intake and pipe network spanning from Barrhill to Chertsey. The infrastructure included a small hydro generation plant to utilise water for electricity generation. By 2016 BCI was delivering water to 20,000 ha in the district, having grown from 7,000 ha in 2010.
In 2017 the two joint venture partners agreed it was time to consider full farmer ownership of the scheme, and in September that year Barrhill Chertsey Irrigation Limited (BCIL) secured 100% ownership of the irrigation scheme infrastructure. The Board of BCIL sincerely acknowledged the support of Electricity Ashburton Limited in the development of the scheme, providing technical support, governance support, and confidence to bank funders.
Mid Canterbury now has over 220,000 ha irrigated area and continues to be a powerhouse in food production in New Zealand, of which BCI irrigation makes up around 10%. As an important infrastructure business in Mid Canterbury BCI has matured and focusses on being a positive influence in the local community, with a strong environmental focus.
BCI is a strong supporter of Irrigo Centre Limited, a joint irrigation scheme owned administration and environmental service provider based in Ashburton. Sharing an office with the major irrigation schemes in the district, under the Irrigo banner, gives a great opportunity to collaborate and provide appropriate resourcing amongst the group. This collaboration will ultimately lead to the consolidation of irrigation schemes in the district.