The ransom price for speeding up (part of) the Tukituki clean-up — $800,000.

The Central Hawke’s Bay Council has played the Regional Council like a violin on the matter of getting Waipawa and Waipukurau sewage effluent out of the Tukituki.

Whether ‘dumb like a fox’ or just plain dumb, the CHB Council has fumbled along the process of preparing its consent application for an alternative wastewater treatment scheme, which needs to be in place under a current Environment Court-imposed consent by 30 September 2014.

While the Regional Council has boasted of a plan it devised about two years ago that would accelerate the clean-up process and put a (still unclear) portion of CHB’s effluent onto HBRC-bought afforestation land, CHB has delayed and delayed submitting an actual application to do so. Recently they indicated the application would be filed next year!

But now their price tag has emerged. On Wednesday the Regional Council will consider an $800,000 interest-free loan to CHB to enable that Council to get on with its job. It seems CHB hasn’t budgeted any money for ‘speedy’ action in 2011-12. Clearly, CHB had no intention of accelerating the clean-up (they made no budget provision for 2011-12 activity, hence this loan), despite all the assurances from HBRC.

So now, because even HBRC is finally embarrassed by the charade, CHB has the Regional Council by the short hairs. Effectively CHB is saying: “We have until 2014 … if you want faster action, you provide the funding.”

OK, if this ransom FINALLY gets the clean-up started ahead of schedule, so be it. (But why interest free?)

That said, no money should be handed over: a) until CHB puts its application on the table (which officially starts the consent clock running); and b) unless CHB’s commitment to getting everything readied for 2011-12 summer start-up in Waipawa and the following summer in Waipuk is spelled out in a detailed workplan and is absolutely ironclad.

Even then, the plan will face hurdles in the consent process. It assumes continued effluent discharge into the river when the flow rates are 3 times the median flow (normally in winter), with HBRC claiming “science advice” says discharge at such times will have no adverse impact on the river ecology.

That’s a claim some environmentalists will contest. Presumably CHB and/or HBRC will table their “science advice” during consideration of the resource consent. CHB acknowledges it will not be treating its wastewater to a higher quality. Skeptics will want to know the practical effect of continuing to dump sewage effluent into the Tukituki. What amount of CHB effluent into the river will still be permitted in this scenario?

Also, there’s the larger context of freshwater management in the Tukituki catchment. What happens to these assumed higher winter river flows when the presumed Ruataniwha water harvesting scheme starts taking water out of the system at precisely those same periods for storage purposes? And what if intensified land use upstream puts significantly more nutrients into the water than is presently the case?

CHB is under the gun to clean up its act only because a handful of environmentalists sought stronger Environment Court intervention when the current consent was under consideration. I’d venture a guess that if these folks – now with a larger constituency behind them – don’t get satisfying answers to their questions, the new consent will be challenged as well.

Of course, then the two Councils – despite their own two years of sitting on their thumbs – will protest that it is the environmentalists who are obstructing the clean-up process. But for all practical purposes, environmentalists will have no alternative, because this next consent will determine the fate of the Tukituki for a long time to come.

Tom Belford

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