Hawke's Bay could become the new Canterbury if it continues down the path of large-scale irrigation and water storage projects, freshwater ecologist Mike Joy warns.
Speaking at an event in Havelock North last night he said Canterbury was now feeling the impact of the environmental damage that irrigation-fuelled intensification had caused, and Hawke's Bay could follow in its footsteps.
"What seemed like a really good idea at the time, they allowed huge intensification and allowed dry land like here to be turned into dairy farming. And now they have this huge issue of nitrates in the groundwater."
The Victoria University of Wellington senior researcher was also critical of plans to investigate Managed Aquifer Recharge in Hawke's Bay, which could see water taken from rivers and pumped back into aquifers to boost levels in dry spells.
Hawke's Bay received $14.7 million from the Provincial Growth Fund in June to investigate the use of the technology in the region.
"It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul. There's virtually no evidence of any long-term gains of it," Dr Joy said.
Hawke's Bay Regional Council chair Rex Graham believed the technology was still worth exploring and while new irrigation would be needed, strict new nutrient and water limits would prevent environmental damage.
The region's farmers were also becoming more water efficient, he said.
"Everywhere in Heretaunga and Central Hawke's Bay we want to look at crops that use far less water and existing crops using smarter water technology, which uses a whole lot less water than traditional methods," Mr Graham said.
Otane farmer Hugh Ritchie, who was part of a group exploring water storage options for Central Hawke's Bay, said farmers had learnt from Canterbury's mistakes.
"Irrigation can be as much of an enabler in terms of allowing land use change into horticulture and other things. It's critical ... in our business with seed crops and specialists vegetable crops we do not get contracts without water."
While large-scale irrigation in Hawke's Bay was still relatively small, it was having a big impact in some areas.
In Central Hawke's Bay, the top six water consent holders - all big dairy farms - used more than half of all the allocated water from the Ruataniwha aquifer and rivers.