The Regional Council is barely into its full-scale feasibility study — at a cost pushing $1 million — of building several dams on the Tukituki in Central Hawke’s Bay. But already the rural press is raising issues that put a spotlight on the controversial economics and politics of such a venture.

For example, the February Country-Wide features two somewhat contradictory articles talking about the potential economics the CHB scheme. One, Dams plan full of challenges, cites a AgFirst Hastings economist, referring to projected rates of return on irrigation investment for cropping versus sheep & beef verus dairying, concluding: “Probably only dairy farms could afford this at the moment.”

If it turns out that only dairying — the most intensive and environmentally unfriendly of possible land uses — makes the irrigation scheme viable, the political lift for the Regional Council could prove back-breaking. Especially given evidence of the damage that dairying is doing already to the Mohaka. How many rivers in HB should dairying screw up?

In the other article, Irrigation scheme ‘worth looking at’, perennial booster of farm interests, Otane farmer Hugh Ritchie gives a different spin to the numbers and urges farmers to look hard at the proposed irrigation project.

Other articles raise questions about the ultimate funding of the scheme.

HBRC is quick to note that its feasibility study enjoys funding support from MAF. But the Council has also been flexing its financial portfolio muscles, indicating that a scheme like this is precisely the sort of regional infrastructure project that the Council should invest “its wealth” in, as opposed to Wellington real estate. [Wouldn’t that be ratepayer wealth?!]

Conservationists I hear from, even if they might ultimately be convinced a massive irrigation scheme involving the Tukituki could be made environmentally safe (and perhaps even beneficial) will go to the mat for a user-pays funding regime. Their argument: “Rights” to public water enhance land value enormously for the “rights” holder … why should ratepayers pay for landowner wealth creation?

Complicating the “who pays” picture is Agriculture Minister Carter. This headline blared in the 19 January Rural News: “No state irrigation subsidy.” Says Carter: “At this stage the Government is not saying no, but what I can say is we won’t be going back to the old days of subsidies. These projects will have to stack up. We won’t be subsidizing them.”

What kind of farming can sustain a massive irrigation investment? … Can environmental harm be avoided … Who pays?

Those are the million dollar questions the Regional Council has before it. Perhaps it would not be too wise for Regional Councillors to wax poetic about this scheme until a fair bit more of the homework is done.

Tom Belford

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  1. Somebody please put me right – isn't Hugh Ritchie involved in the marketing of irrigation systems? Wasn't it he who was on the HBRC panel promoting the big schemes at the public presentation on irrigation last year? If I am wrong then my apologies in advance.

  2. Snide comments about investing in Wellington property need a response.

    It makes more sense for ratepayers to get a return from a gilt edged investment in Wellington, that will benefit all ratepayers and in the end can be realised, than give vast sums of ratepayers money to consultants and projects that will never see the light of day.

    Water is available in CHB and nothing will be achieved by this 'picking winners' good looking for councillors, lollie scramble.

    It would be better to spend this money on groynes at Haumoana but this could be seen as unfair use of ratepayers money as well.

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