Crunch time for Hunter Downs water scheme

The company behind the stalled Hunter Downs irrigation scheme will decide next week whether to go ahead or return funds to its shareholders.

In a newsletter sent out on November 29, Hunter Downs Water Ltd chairman Andrew Fraser said the board had resolved to vote on the issue at the company's annual meeting on December 14.

The proposed $195million scheme to irrigate 21,000ha between the Waitaki River and Timaru received a $1.37million government development funding grant earlier this year. Shares were offered in March but, by the end of April, too few were sold to proceed as planned.

In June, project manager Stacey Scott said ''the scheme has been redesigned for 12,000ha''. That was the last public announcement until the newsletter.

Mr Fraser said the company had been holding water share funds in trust since April.

''The project remains approximately 10% short of the minimum uptake required to proceed. We are making a final appeal to farmers and other key stakeholders to invest in this project.''

South Canterbury businessman and landowner Gary Rooney, whose company designed the irrigation scheme, has made an offer that almost makes up the shortfall.

Crown Irrigation Investments Ltd has confirmed that its funding offer to Hunter Downs Water Ltd was a commitment, subject to conditions, the newsletter said.

''Crown Irrigation Investments Ltd has agreed to provide $70million term debt funding for the project - which assists in achieving the affordability requirement, while not creating significant subsidisation between farmers.

''Hunter Downs Water is required to have a total of 9500 shares sold prior to financial close and a total of 7000 water shares (equal to 7000ha) issued at that date.''

The company has commitments from about 50 shareholders for just over 6000 water shares and pledges for further shares, it said.

''We are pleased to report that in recognition of the importance of this scheme to South Canterbury, and reflecting his belief in the project and future demand, that Gary Rooney, through Rooney Group Ltd, has agreed to purchase 1500 bridge water shares, or 'dry shares', which assists to bridge most of this gap.''

Mr Fraser said the company had secured unique features to deliver water at a viable cost:

A highly reliable water take and use consent from the Waitaki River.

Nutrient rights capable of seeing the region into the future in both a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.

The ability to augment the Wainono Lagoon to help achieve community water-quality aspirations.

An innovative design by Rooney Group that uses the existing Morven Glenavy Irrigation infrastructure and accommodates future growth in the most cost-effective manner.

Access through KiwiRail land for the main backbone up the coastal route, reducing both cost and land access issues.

Financial support and funding from Crown Irrigation Investments Ltd.

There were ''critical time constraints'' on several of the aspects, Mr Fraser said.

''I would urge anyone who has an interest in the scheme to contact us directly, ensuring that we have a viable scheme to take forward and ensure the future prosperity of the region.''

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