Hawke’s Bay Regional Council wants the region to grow and prosper, while its clean natural environment is protected. To achieve this it needs to take some bold steps as well as taking an integrated approach to everything it does within the region.

From its extensive investigations into a proposed water storage project on the Ruataniwha Plains, to the careful structuring of HBRC’s investment portfolio, including the establishment of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Investment Company, through which future investments in water infrastructure may be made, it is aware of the effect each of its decisions has on the overall vision of the organisation.

This integrated approach is no more evident than in the work underway to address water sustainability and allocation issues in the Tukituki catchment.

To bring this river back to good health and avoid negative economic impacts on the local community water needs to be found. HBRC is undertaking a robust investigation into potential water storage in the Ruataniwha Plains that would provide water security to irrigators, improve the water flows and quality in the Tukituki River and open up more productive land in turn providing increased economic development for the region.

It’s this smart alignment of a range of work streams coupled with strong leadership and vision which will help HBRC achieve its strategic goals for the Tukituki catchment and the region as a whole.

HBRC commissioned environmental historian David Young to take an independent look at its strategic approach to land and water, focusing on the Tukituki River water storage and irrigation plans – a scheme to enhance the flows and water quality of the river system. He interviewed some 15 participants — this is his report.

Despite Nick Smith’s resignation from Cabinet, there is a continuing momentum abroad in New Zealand for freshwater management solutions on a level not seen for some decades — and using methods of engagement and governance rarely chanced here before.

The reasons for this are many and various. Guy Salmon’s long game to achieve environmental protection by conciliation rather than the usual aggressive recourse to money and lawyers has been important. Smith’s Land and Water Forum is testament alone to that. Among many others, is the realisation that the Resource Management Act (RMA) — now 20 years old – is just one tool in the box.

Connected to this thinking is the carrot — of Government‘s Irrigation Acceleration Fund, that may stimulate regional development. This Government also has a stick – its rough-house takeover of the Canterbury Regional Council for allegedly not getting its water management plan in order stands as an unpleasant warning to other councils. Yet the possibility of government support lit up this month’s Irrigation Conference with a kind of optimism more often seen on the other side of the Tasman.

Leading the charge with its initiatives is the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC). Known for its sunshine, abundant produce, family-friendly lifestyle and its rivers and river plains, Hawke’s Bay is also water-hungry on those plains in summer, more especially as climate change kicks in – but water-rich in its Ruahine hinterland. This has gotten HBRC thinking about irrigation on a scale much larger and perhaps more holistically. Its thinking also involves so many aspects of hydrology, ecology, commerce and culture, HBRC realised that it needed to embark upon a strategy underpinned by a democratic process of engagement with community and stakeholders of a kind rarely undertaken – certainly on this scale — in New Zealand before.

The aim was to provide for an integration of conservation and development to achieve the much-touted, but rarely satisfied over-arching principle of the RMA — sustainable management. But to work towards this in ways that achieved comprehensive community goals: social, economic and environmental, that the RMA processes often fall short of.

To get there, however, fundamental changes of everything, from the models of governance to water usage arrangements, were required. Fenton Wilson, the thinking man’s farmer and chair of HBRC, describes the approach adopted, referred to as ‘collaborative governance’. “If you’re sitting at a table with all parties,” he says, “and you’re putting it freely and frankly, then you can go to a hearing where everyone is much better off. In the end, it’s less cumbersome and less expensive.”

Instead of the sometimes cumbersome and often combative processes of the Resource Management Act, “We’re doing our darnedest to ensure people are included at every step of the way and we’re using a new process,” he says. “It’s about recognising other views — you may not agree, but they may either reinforce your views or bring you to a place that suits both parties.”

“The challenge we’ve got as a society in New Zealand is managing the desire for economic improvement, in a way that doesn’t negatively impact on our environment and the values that we hold dear in society.” The possibility of irrigating more land needed to be explored, but without impacting those who value a river’s aesthetic, recreational, or what he calls an ‘heirloom value’.

Allocation limits set in place in the regional plan that became operative in 2006 have been exceeded in a number of catchment by consents that existed at the time. So HBRC has committed to reviewing minimum flows in the planning documents. This is likely to reduce water security, particularly for users who take water directly from the river or a groundwater layer that is linked to it by complex systems.

Water quality issues are high on the community’s agenda. Periphyton growths in the lower Tukituki are objectionable to locals and other river users. This is aggravated by minimum flow levels set at Red Bridge which are probably too low. Point source discharges from the up-river towns of Waipawa and Waipukurau are significant contributors to periphyton and the planned upgrades have deadlines that are fast approaching. Nutrient-rich grower and dairy farmer generated runoffs are also contributing to the current state of water quality.

In order to put more water into irrigation on the Ruataniwha Plains and improve water quality, the HBRC began to do pre-feasibility investigations on possible dam sites in the Upper Tukituki River around the same time it began to engage in a detailed stakeholder discussion. A number of further recent developments, national, regional and local, helped further sharpen everyone’s thinking:

  • The Government’s long-awaited national policy statement for freshwater announced in 2011 directs regional councils to set allocation limits and water quality targets
  • The 2011 Budget allocated $35 million over five years for the Irrigation Acceleration Fund to support the development of irrigation infrastructure proposals
  • Big food processing corporations, notably Silver Fern Farms, Heinz-Wattie and Fonterra, are currently looking to expand their operations in Hawke’s Bay. McCains has recently invested in $19m of new plant, which otherwise would have gone to Tasmania.
  • Now in post-Treaty settlement mode, tangata whenua, traditionally holistic thinkers, are potential scheme investors, workers and beneficiaries, who are also empowered to play their part in decision-making that they hope will become environmentally restorative as well as economically constructive.

As part of their wider thinking, the HBRC came up with the idea of capitalising on the rain-rich Ruahines, to the west, in order to stimulate the water-short, productive potential of the Ruataniwha Plains (see box).

Optimistic as it sounds, HBRC is minded to take its strategic and holistic thinking to its community, to work inclusively with them in ways that challenge old modes of thinking and doing – in a pretty tight time frame – on the scheme.

To achieve ‘a mosaic’ on the plains, and not the bogey of a dairying monoculture, the processes must be inclusive of the diversity intended in the outcomes. But concerns expressed about the scheme are that only the prices dairying can bring can afford the charges that those investing in the scheme will need for a return. Peter McIntosh, ex-regional council, with experience in business overseas, is now Hawke’s Bay Regional Manager for Fish and Game New Zealand. While the organisation advocates trout fishing, it abets the native fishery to the extent that it also promotes water quality that native insects and increasingly rare fish (long-fin eel, inanga and dwarf galaxiids) also depend upon.

Peter McIntosh is concerned that the hard economic data has yet to emerge, making project evaluation difficult — noting that HBRC’s 30% augmentation figure in early April has suddenly became ‘20 to 30%’. He speaks for those worried about compressed timeframes – with what he sees thus far as, perhaps inevitable, opacity in reporting detail and lack of peer review. “Our stakeholder group has seen nothing of detail yet.”

HBRC Chief Executive Andrew Newman says the communication challenge has been to involve key parties through the journey from its inception. “That means they have influence on what we examine as well as being party to results which are flowing in now. We are communicating information as it evolves so there’s inevitably a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty particularly through the early stages.”

Peter McIntosh lives beside and loves the Tukituki and knows it well. “We have to see improved flows in the Tukituki as a result of this scheme. But it’s the land use intensification that concerns me.” He wants to believe it would work, but worries that the age of farmers in the CHB is more likely to produce sellers than stayers in the scheme, which may be problematical.

Farm management plans and nutrient budgets need to be enforceable, accompanied by on-farm wetland enhancement to help filter out sediment and pollutants, says Peter. All are identified in the strategic plan. With fifth-generation farmer, Andrew Watts, Peter wants ‘adequate riparian fencing’.

Watts, a stakeholder group member with no pecuniary interest in the project, only in “the good health of Hawke’s Bay”, advocates for native birds, fish and trees. He wants 20m riparian native strips on either side of major water courses to improve water and visual quality. A spray irrigation pioneer from the 1970s his intensive green dairying involved collecting farm effluent in tanks to later spread systematically on paddocks.

HBRC Chief Executive, Andrew Newman acknowledges concerns that the council cannot direct land use change, and concerns that the only use that would be able to afford storage would be dairying. “If the pricing mechanism to gain access to the stored water is based on volume, as opposed to an upfront capital cost per hectare, then the cost of entry will better reflect the respective land uses’ water requirements and enable and retain that diversity of land uses on the plains,” he says.

With an increased mosaic of irrigated and unirrigated land within integrated farming enterprises comes the concern of the impacts on water quality. Upcoming changes to the regional plan will see water quality limits being set for the first time in the Tukituki River Catchment. These will translate into a quantum of nutrient (nitrogen) that can be lost below the soil zone. This will require farmers to be much more aware of what they are currently leaching to groundwater and what they need to do to minimise those losses. While this will apply across the catchment, Andrew says the irrigation scheme would provide a mechanism through any contractual conditions to ensure that nutrient losses are within acceptable levels.

Richard Dakin stakeholder, water right consent holder for arable farming on the Ruataniwha, is positive: “Provided all the economics stacks up. But it will all come out in the wash in the next few months. And augmenting the river flows will be good where the river is coming under restraint.” The dam’s ability to provide a potential five-fold increase in irrigated land is “a prudent thing to do if we want to expand agriculture.” Surety of supply would encourage investment, enabling expansion, “Most irrigators could do with more water.”

His concern, too, is that the only dairying may be able to afford the water, thereby changing the cropping of the plains to something that might threaten that mixed cropping mosaic that has long characterised Hawke’s Bay: “I won’t be doing dairy farming,” Richard insists.

Mãori leadership engaged in the discussion has a considered, but reasonably relaxed attitude to the dam from the perspective of the rivers’ mauri (life force), already compromised by flood works and irrigation. Mike Mohi, 50 years a Porangahau sheep farmer and member of Tamatea Tai Whenua, on the stakeholder committee, holds some concerns, however: “From a Mãori point of view I’m apprehensive as to the facts of another 20,000 ha of irrigated land as regards to run-off. We’ve been assured that the mitigation measures will be put in place.” His analysis is that while the new irrigation may not attract many more dairy farms, there may be many more dairy cows. That is, more local forage cropping for local dairy – without the usual haulage rates – possibly adding a double whammy, with more arable plus more dairying discharges. But he and Dr Roger Maaka, a member of the Ruataniwha Leadership Group, are keen that promised fish passes for native species, long-fin eel and kokopu, succeed on the dam. Both can see how the wealth the dam could bring would keep roads upgraded and schools and hospitals fully operational.

“Post-dam activities are of great interest to us,” Roger says, “because if extra water is simply a means to more horticultural activities that were detrimental to the river, then I wouldn’t be interested.” If the scheme can attract the large number of unemployed young Mãori to stay and work in the region, then the stability and wealth it creates will, with sound environmental outcomes, be everything, “We need employment for young families – I guess I’m not interested if it means rich people getting richer — if local people don’t gain anything from it, then it’s a futile exercise.” Mãori as investors need to see the dam as “a good place for us to put our capital – it goes along with everything we stand for,” Roger says.

Flows imitating natural flushing are also planned, although modelling in the complex gravels is a difficult science. Augmented off-set planting for what forest will be lost in the flooding is also planned and factored in to a wider regional approach to different agencies sharing management of the hinterland.

Nothing like this dam has been built since the Ministry of Works (MWD) in the late 1980s. Successful Opuha, South Canterbury, was a locally-driven dam-for-irrigation scheme of the late 1990s. With its serious teething problems long overcome, it is the nearest approximation to this scheme, but considerably smaller in extent.

Yet how history moves in cycles. The defunct catchment boards, the regional councils’ precursors in water management, ran water and soil regional management for nearly 50 years. Now, in a funny way, while language changes and concepts are inevitably refined, the late efforts of catchment boards towards “integrated management” of catchments are more than alive in this regional management strategy. But now tangata whenua have achieved long awaited co-governance, some science has progressed “way further” and New Zealanders who thought there would always be ample water for our use are beginning to understand that waste, be it of superphosphate, of growing soils and – most dramatically – of water itself, is a crime against ourselves as well as nature.

As long as HBRC continues to uphold the innovative and inclusive processes that have been set up to achieve its strategies, there is every reason to believe that the goals of sustainability – that benefit the widest community, the ecological and the environmental as well as the economy – can be achieved in this ambitious project. Implementation will be tough in the circumstances. The trick is then to stay true to their original principles while developing adaptive governance for resilience in a changing world.

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