Historically local Maori had little use for the Amuri, instead they passed through the area on their way through the mountain passes to the West Coast.

When European settlers began moving into the area during the 1860s, they divided the land into large sheep stations. In the early 1900s, these large stations were acquired by the government and balloted out as smaller farms. This began with the sale of the Culverden Estate in 1908 which created 29 smaller farms.

The Amuri Basin was traditionally a sheep and beef farming area encompassing the towns of Culverden, Rotherham and Waiau. Its productivity was restricted by the dry Canterbury summers that resulted in low productivity and many droughts. Water races existed in the area for over a century and talk of irrigation had been around since the 1920s, but it took until the 1970s for irrigation to become a reality.

The Culverden Scientific Reserve is an example of what the Amuri basin used to look like.

The Culverden Scientific Reserve is an example of what the Amuri Basin used to look like.

In 1950, a group of 68 farmers, members of the Amuri branch of Federated Farmers, signed a petition to the Minister of Works asking for an irrigation survey in their district. This led to a survey in 1952.

It was the Labour Government’s 1973 Irrigation policy which allowed the scheme to move from paper onto the ground. This was a time where support for large scale public works was high. New irrigation schemes were seen as being in the national interest by having economy wide benefits as well as fitting neatly into the “Think Big” philosophy of the Muldoon era. This attitude may have overshadowed the need for more economic analysis on the viability of the scheme, which became evident when the 1980s brought ‘worst case scenario’ conditions for farmers.

An application for the Waiau scheme was made by local farmers in January 1974 and approval was granted in February 1975. A poll of 85 local farmers voted to proceed with the scheme. It would become a major community project designed under the supervision of the Ministry of Works with advice and lending from MAF and the Rural Bank.

Construction of the Waiau scheme went ahead on the basis that the Government would subsidise 100% of the costs of the off farm earthworks and structures. On farm works received a suspensory loan for 50% of the costs of irrigation development which was to be written off over a ten year period. This included the costs of installation and the purchase of plant that could not be removed from the property. In 1975, the estimated cost of the Waiau scheme was $7.5million however by the start of construction in 1977, this figure had grown to $11.3 million.

Piped domestic and stock water schemes were installed parallel to the irrigation schemes and this cost was subsidised by a taxpayer grant of 50% of the total cost. The taxpayer funded investigation and construction costs were intended to be recovered with compound interest (at current rates) from the farmer irrigators after a moratorium of seven years. In the eighth year actual operating, maintenance and interest costs were calculated as an annual water charge.

Articles from the time – click to enlarge 

The first of the Amuri schemes to open was Waiareka Downs in 1976, which sits east of the Waiau township. This took water from the Waiau River and irrigated 420ha of land by borderdyke on eight farms.

The first sod was turned on the Waiau scheme 30 September 1977. It was to be the largest array of heavy earthmoving machinery used in New Zealand on such a project to date. The intake gates of the main water race at the Leslie Hills Bridge were opened on 25 November 1980 by Hon. W L Young, Minister of Works and Development in front of a large crowd.

The construction of the Balmoral scheme gained approval in 1979. The right to take 5 cumecs of water from the Hurunui River was granted in April 1981. This water was intended to service up to 28 farms over an area totalling about 5,500ha. Development work on the scheme was opened by the Rt Hon R D Muldoon on 19 November 1979.

Initially the scheme was built and run by the Ministry of Works with input from a farmer led committee. Farms that did receive water showed the increased productivity brought by irrigation with an increased stock rate of two stock units per hectare reported.

It took some many years to complete all the on-farm development. Drought and inflation meant that many farmers completed a large amount of the on farm development themselves. During the 1980s meat and wool prices were low and many farmers had heavy debt to pay for the developments required by irrigation.

During the summers of 1980-81, 1981-82 and 1982-83, the district suffered successive droughts. Most farms were partly developed with raw borderdyked land but only a few were able to receive water. Escalating construction costs, inflation and declining farm gate prices meant that the farmers could not afford to pay the high water charges and development slowed as it became more unaffordable for farmers.

The 1980s and early 1990s were a difficult time for many farmers as costs spiralled upwards and farm income dropped. In 1976, the water charge for a Waiau Scheme farmer was $13.50 per hectare irrigated by 1986 this had grown to $136/ha. Interest rates had also climbed during that same period from 6% to 21%pa. For a Balmoral farmer, in 1979, water charges were $30/ha and interest rates 9%pa. In 1986, water rates were $168/ha/pa and interest rates sat at 21%pa.

In 1985, the Amuri Plains Irrigation Committee began a long process of lobbying Central Government for more sustainable water charges. The Committee started sending out monthly newsletters outlining the ongoing problems with the scheme. These included drainage problems in the Culverden Township due to a raised water table and difficulties with the intake weir on the Waiau River.

In 1986, Cabinet initiated a review of all community irrigation schemes. This review suggested that the selling these schemes might solve the ongoing problems created by them.

In 1987, the Government declared that farmers should be given the first opportunity to purchase the schemes. The Committee began a long process of negotiating with Central Government. This process was fraught with problems as the Amuri schemes were given a value of $22-26million by Treasury an amount that the Farmers could simply not afford. The Committee insisted that these works had no value if irrigators could not afford to pay the water charges and the scheme was closed down and rejected any valuation that was above nominal figures with a write off of taxpayer funded investment.

When the larger Lower Waitaki scheme was sold for around $1million, the Committee knew their scheme was worth less. The Amuri Irrigation Company Limited (AIC) was formed in 1990 and the Government agreed to sell the three Amuri schemes to Amuri Irrigation Company Limited that same year.

It was a company wholly owned by farmers, all of whom were shareholders. Shares were issued in two classes: 12,200 ‘A’ shares issued at a rate of one per developed irrigable hectare and 7,800 ‘B’ shares at one per undeveloped hectare. Only A shares had water delivered and were entitled to vote. The Company raised $425,000.00 from irrigators (13,055 A shares @ $25.00 each and 6,475 ‘B’ shares @ $12.50 each). The prospectus was fully subscribed and the Company borrowed an additional $175,000.00 to raise the purchase price. Water charges were set at $28/irrigated hectare.

When irrigation was first mooted, the aim was for more intensive sheep and beef farming systems not for land use change. However irrigation made the land ideal for dairy farming and the first dairy farm was established in the Amuri in 1982. Early examples of dairy proved successful and many farmers followed. The switch to dairy did not gain momentum until the first half of the 1990s, when a steady influx of dairy farmers took advantage of the low cost land and began converting it to dairy farming. Early dairy farmers hoped to match 70% of the output of Waikato dairy farmers at the time.

Statistics show that 60% of farms in the Amuri area have changed ownership since the advent of irrigation. This has brought with it much social change to an area with a traditionally static population. Dairy has meant an influx of new families and nationalities into the area which has altered the degree and pattern of participation in community activities. Amuri has traditionally been well served by community organisations but now the number and diversity has grown exponentially to the benefit of all.

In 2000, AIC had 103 shareholders and the total irrigated area in the Amuri was around 18,000 hectares. Two fulltime race men were employed to carry out the day to day maintenance and operation of the schemes. Although most farmers continued to irrigate using borderdyke irrigation, some 15 farmers had opted to use spray irrigation.

Today

The high reliability of the Amuri schemes combined with a dry, crisp climate offers very favourable pastoral farming opportunities. The basin now boasts over 70 dairy farms with annual production averaging 1417kg milk solids per hectare (385kg MS/cow) making the region one of the highest producing areas for dairy in New Zealand.

When irrigation was first contemplated, it was seen as an insurance tool against extreme weather but is now used as a management tool by farmers to ensure maximum efficiency of land and pasture. The AIC irrigated area is now made up of 60% dairy platform; 25% dairy support and 15% sheep, deer, beef and cropping.

In September 2016, AIC  embarked on a project to upgrade much of the current open race network over five distinct branches, Waiau 1-3 and Balmoral 1-2. This includes approximately 131km of buried GRP and HDPE pipe and 180 offtakes. This project was completed in September 2017 and now 24,000 hectares will be supplied with water by pressured piped water and 4,000 hectares will be supplied from the existing main water races.

In July 2018, AIC began a project to install a 5km pipe and pond at the Waiareka scheme, this is due for completion in October 2018.

In 2018, AIC has 131 shareholders irrigating 28,000 hectares, 99% is spray irrigated and 1% is border dyke irrigation.