Last Thursday, five members of the Regional Council shelved — at least for now — the proposal for ratepayers to purchase $36.9 million of water from the proposed Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme (RWSS).
The lack of any evidence-based case whatsoever for this purchase, plus the opposition of nearly 150 submitters (as against 9 in favour), convinced all but Councillors Debbie Hewitt, Christine Scott and Dave Pipe to effectively table the proposition. Those three persisted that the proposition was a good ‘deal’.
Submitter Garth Eyles, former head of HBRC’s land management function, summed up the view of many others, commenting that “the financials are irrelevant” as the “Council was required to provide sufficient water to maintain water quality in the Tukituki river. If more water is now needed than originally required surely it is a responsibility of HBRC to provide it — at no cost”.
His comment underscored the basic difference in values between opponents and proponents of the water purchase.
To opponents of the purchase, the dam is first and foremost supposed to enhance the Tukituki ecosystem. And if able to do that, and create the necessary environmental headroom, then enable more intensified farming. Thus, first priority for stored water is environmental protection and improvement … and ratepayers would already be paying their $80 million for that public good.
To supporters of the purchase (and of the dam itself for that matter), the highest value and driver of the scheme is water security for irrigators, with the environment impacts mitigated only up to the point where the cost of doing so becomes too onerous to irrigators, undermining their profitability. In this view, water diverted from irrigation should have second priority and should bear a cost … in this case, an extra $36 million to the ratepayer.
Nearly 150 submitters made very clear where they stood on this value choice … environment first.
Some interesting considerations came to light during submissions and the ensuing debate.
First, in reviewing nearly 200 submissions on all aspects of the HBRC’s work, councillors considered numerous requests for funding, in amounts from $5,000 to $300,000. I can say without hesitation that we received far more substantiation for these requests that we did for HBRIC’s $36 million pitch! And we — not happily in many of those cases — rejected most of them. Not for their lack of merit, but to protect the ratepayer’s purse.
Second, the discussions underscored the absence of thought behind the purchase proposition. At one point in his verbal submission, Garth Eyles asked, if the proposal were approved, how water was actually to be supplied to Lake Hatuma (the one example supporters have given as to how enhanced flows might be used). The silence was deafening … no one could answer! Later, during debate, Councillor Scott offered her own cost calculations, arguing that the water purchase would ‘only’ cost $23 million … which merely underscored the argument of skeptics — the half-baked proposition is so poorly conceived there’s not even agreement on its cost to ratepayers!
Third, while HBRIC argued that additional ‘environmental flows’ were hugely important for HBRC to have in its mitigation toolkit, it turns out that these flows could not have priority over the irrigation agreements already signed with 196 or so farmers, since their contracts already promise them the higher priority use of the water. In other words, the supposedly crucial extra environmental flows would play second fiddle to irrigation. One might protest: Who gave HBRIC the authority to make that call on priorities and negotiate away the environment’s right to water?!
Fourth, while supporters like HBRIC and Councillor Scott represented enhanced water flows as the key to improving Tukituki water quality, the real problem to be addressed is the huge increase in nutrient load that would be generated by intensified farming made possible by the scheme … especially the predicted increase from 8,000 more hectares of dairying on light soils on the Ruataniwha plains. It is increased nutrients (and ineffective wastewater treatment by CHB sewage plants) that must be prevented … dilution is not the answer.
It’s worth noting that the 9 supporting submitters included HBRIC itself (the RWSS champion), the mayor and chief executive of CHB, Federated Farmers, HB Fruitgrowers, HBRIC’s designated Maori advocate for the dam Roger Maaka, and the Port (because income to RWSS from the purchase might take pressure off eventually needing Port dividends to prop up the scheme).
Most disingenuous in the debate was Councillor Scott, who at one point tried to suggest that the submission of Federated Farmers counted more than the submission of any individual ratepayer, since Fed Farmers had 400 members in Hawke’s Bay. Her numbers game was, well, destroyed. It was quickly pointed out that submissions opposing the water purchase included Ngati Kahungunu, Grey Power, and Forest & Bird … all more than equal in numbers to Fed Farmers. I offered to supply some members of Fed Farmers who oppose the purchase. It was also noted that when weighing prior submissions on the dam, Councillor Scott had argued that a petition with about 1,000 signatures in opposition should be counted as one. Ah, consistency!
So, now what? Is the water purchase dead?
Given lack of support on the day, the proposition was effectively ‘left on the table’ without a vote by Chairman Wilson last Thursday. He plans to bring back to the June 29 Council meeting a proposal and timetable for how HBRC staff might develop a case for enhanced environmental flows for the Tukituki, with detail on how much water might be useful, how it would be used, its cost and financing.
You’ll recall that, as much as they try now to re-write the record, five councillors voted to force through this purchase in the first place without any public consultation at all. They seemed to feel some strange sense of urgency. The source of this urgency was HBRIC, who gave the impression that time was fleeting, negotiations were speeding along with an investor, and the ‘deal’ for this water might disappear (at least in this supposedly attractive form). However it has since turned out that no decision is needed on the matter before mid-December.
With urgency gone, the fate of the $36 million purchase (or is it $23 million, or some other cost yet to be determined?) will twist in the wind for a few more months as proponents attempt to get a case together.