The Regional Council has completed a “pre-feasibility” inquiry into potential water harvesting and storage in Central Hawke’s Bay.

A substantial amount of “desk top” analysis has been done to develop a scenario envisioning 5-6 dams with supporting and inter-connecting infrastructure. Approximately 800 hectares would be flooded in this scenario.

Through both one-on-one sessions and three public meetings in CHB, that scenario has been floated to potentially affected farmers, tangata whenua and others in the region. CEO Andrew Newman says the pre-feasibility analysis is in the public domain, but it has yet to appear on the HBRC website.

Feedback is said to be positive overall. Those whose land might be directly affected have expressed the expected emotional connections to their land, as well as concerns about potential compensation for land foregone. Newman says that if affected farmers cannot be persuaded in one case or another to make their land available, the Regional Council will move on to alternative sites.

Mike Mohi, Chairman of the HBRC’s Maori Committee, reported that Maori leaders have voiced significant concerns that will need to be met regarding the potential degrading of water quality in the Tukituki and its tributaries from run-off, if the amount of land irrigated in the catchment increases from roughly 5,000 hectares to 30,000 hectares. Mitigation measures will need to be robust!

That’s a sentiment echoed by Iain Maxwell, Regional Manager for Fish & Game, who says the key issues for conservationists will be ensuring effects of increased land use intensity are mitigated and that the flow harvesting regime won’t affect in-stream values — as he puts it: “No creaming off all the top-end flows and flat-lining rivers.”

He comments: “We are adding our support to this initiative as an alternative to further direct takes from the region’s water bodies, or deeper bore takes that have as yet un-quantified impacts on the region’s rivers. At this stage, the investigations are simply a desktop exercise with further field investigations … It would be premature to judge them without due consideration of the facts after a series of more detailed investigations occurs. If designed and managed appropriately, there are potentially significant benefits to river flows, with storage able to supplement summer low flows with releases of additional water. We are carefully optimistic that these schemes could benefit all sectors of the community.”

What next?
HBRC staff will re-group over the next month, and bring forward to the August 26 meeting of the Council a proposal for a full feasibility study. The full study would include detailed geophysical and hydrological analyses; examination of environmental effects and cultural issues; implementation scenarios; economic analysis; identification of key stakeholders, shareholders and investors and their roles; and a plan for robust public consultation.

Regional Councillor Tim Gilbertson, who represents the CHB district, has recommended creation of a “community liaison committee” to help clear the path for the project … to dispel the perception, as he puts it, that “this is a proposal to help dairy farmers rape the Tuki.” Ironically, Councillor Gilbertson — normally a fervent “less is better” advocate — shows all the exuberance for this initiative that one might customarily expect from an elected official about to be handed the biggest public works project of his lifetime for his district.

Indeed, Tim calls the irrigation scheme “the most important economic development for the region since refrigeration.” It appears that miserly Councillor Gilbertson has finally found a government programme to believe in!

Personally, I share the “careful optimism” of Iain Maxwell, and hope that his group and others, like Maori leaders and the Hawke’s Bay Environmental Water Group, will keep the Regional Council’s feet to the fire with respect to guaranteeing that environmental values are fully protected.

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