The Regional Council locomotive is thundering down some very wobbly rails, determined to get its dam project ‘fast tracked’ by the Environment Minister while the Nats are in power and the Crown is in a money-splurging mood for irrigation/dairy projects.

The HBRC strategy seems to be speed (and lack of transparency) at all costs … get a decision before the wheels fall off or the tracks fail.

However, in this case, speed is the enemy of prudent decision-making.

Here is the way NOT to make a $600 million decision …

First, the Regional Council hurriedly cobbled together a breathtakingly deficient propaganda consultation document called Tukituki Choices. One of the Regional Councillors, a staunch supporter of the dam scheme since it was first mooted (and well before any facts were tabled) called Tukituki Choices “thinly disguised propaganda” that “treated the reader as an idiot” (here).

All five of the environmental representatives on the water storage stakeholders group sent a letter to HBRC protesting the Tukituki Choices document, and lack of consultation in its preparation, saying in part:

“…very significant issues of science, and assumptions and conclusions associated with that science, remain in dispute. These are considered serious enough that HBRC has agreed to a ‘science caucusing’ on those issues.

“However, in the meantime, HBRC has elected to incorporate its view of the issues in the Tukituki Choices document, significantly biasing the presentation, if not in fact misrepresenting key matters, such as the extent of environmental protection actually provided in differing scenarios, the extent of mitigation measures required to deal effectively with ecological concerns, the cost of such measures, and therefore the underlying economics of the project.

“Given these concerns, we consider that Tukituki Choices is fatally flawed as a public consultation document. It is biased, inaccurate on key points, silent about key issues still under review (and their significance), and therefore misleading.” (Tukutuki Choices letter here)

Second, it appears that the ‘science caucusing’ mentioned above will not occur before the HBRC decides on the environmental feasibility of the water scheme. Why? Because the HBRC isn’t yet ready to hand over the necessary background information for independent experts to review. Yet the staff, in urging approval of its feasibility recommendations, simply reports:  “… the outcomes/findings of this additional work are not anticipated to identify  any environmental flaws that would affect the feasibility of the project.”

This stance makes a mockery of the so-called stakeholders consultation.

Third, even elected Councillors have very restrictive access to the information required to make an informed decision on the project’s feasibility. Key economic and financial reports must be read in the HBRC’s chairman’s office — they are not available for Councillors to review with independent experts or advisors … let alone any public scrutiny. So much for our Councillors’ fiduciary duty.

No corporate director would stand for such nonsense.

Fourth, in recent weeks the Environment Court, with its One Plan decision, made precedent-setting rulings with respect to the requirement to set stringent quality standards and regulate farming practices so as to protect water quality. Such standards and regulation are at the heart of protections Hawke’s Bay environmentalists are seeking if the water storage scheme is to proceed. That decision alone should be cause enough for the Regional Council to hit the ‘Pause’ button on its dam railroading process.

Yet the Council hasn’t given any indication of whether or how it will take the Court decision into account in designing HB water plans.

Fifth, the enormity of this project and its implications are just beginning to be perceived by the public … and independent experts within the community who know farm economics, growing practices, and pollution mitigation alternatives. These people are asking for more time to understand the Council’s proposals, even while — after more than two years of study — key reports are uncompleted, released only in recent days, and/or withheld from the public entirely.

At a recent EIT-sponsored water forum, virtually all 250 or so attendees endorsed a resolution calling for a six month extension of the review process. The Council’s response … a 10 day extension.

Finally, last Friday, a delegation consisting of leaders of all of Hawke’s Bay’s environmental groups, together with other allies, met with the HBRC chair and chief executive (and senior staff) to reinforce several of the points above and to make clear the bottom line concerns of the environmental community. I’m bound by ‘Chatham rules’ not to disclose the content of that meeting.

However, in the face of ‘all is well’ representations from HBRC staff, Councillors need to be aware of the firm resolve that was expressed by the community’s environmental leadership.

So, the Council train at the moment is headed for a political and legal train wreck. Possibly an avoidable wreck. But inevitable at the speed the Council is now proceeding.

Tom Belford

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