With a mighty front-page splash in Hawke’s Bay Today this week, echoed by a stirring Talking Point in the same edition, the Tukituki Water Security Project was launched.

According to its announcement letter, the Project is a “rescoping of the needs of the catchment and a genuine assessment of how the purpose can feasibly be met using a range of measures, including the potential for water storage. There are no predetermined outcomes and this is not a re-run of previous water projects.”

Later the letter assures us: “We plan to take on board the lessons learned from previous attempts to address water security in the region.”

The leader of this initiative is CHB farmer Mike Petersen, the highly esteemed former agriculture trade ambassador for New Zealand. Mike has graced the pages of BayBuzz magazine as a superb articulator of what it will take for NZ food producers to survive in the overseas marketplace – namely, high value products with green credibility.

So, I take seriously any project that Mike gets behind, and I told him I would keep an open mind on this one.

That said, I’m not sure my sense of the ‘lessons’ to be learned from the Ruataniwha Dam fiasco are the same as Mike’s group, which is essentially a collection of folks with an economic interest in water. 

That’s one lesson not learned. Where are the environmental reps? Where are the regen ag farmers who appear to be already more drought resilient?

I suspect the group feels they have the environmental base covered by including on their team a Maori leader, Liz Graham, chair of the Heretaunga Tamatea Settlement Trust. 

But that doesn’t quite cut it. Despite a lot of public perception that Maori unfailingly champion the environment above all else, what I’ve observed in reality (especially in my regional councillor days) is that it doesn’t take much waving of the jobs/economic benefit flag to surface a different set of priorities.

So yes, involving Tamatea (plus some sprinkling of Te Reo Māori in the media material) might provide some political cover in seeking support from a Labour Government (if that need arises), plus facilitate access to $100m in Trust money.

But if the group genuinely wants an environmental perspective, try adding a Forest and Bird rep. And try adding a regen ag farmer.

Then there’s the actual workplan of the Steering Group. They’ve hired an investment banking firm – Lewis Tucker – as their lead adviser. If ever there were a red flag! Their brief: “…undertake a full review … of the environmental footprint, water demand, the project structure, total project costs, capital structure and suitability of the consents.” 

Of course, there’s nothing to say a financier can’t understand environmental values and footprints … and maybe even be green at heart. 

So, I’ll hold my fire on that one. And strive mightily to stave off my suspicion that these are simply guys looking for dams to finance.

Surely you wouldn’t pay them merely to replicate work already done by Tonkin & Taylor on alternative storage options or the meticulous work nearly completed by HBRC’s Regional Water Demand Assessment.

What are the lessons I learned from the Ruataniwha episode?

  1. ‘Water security’ and ‘water storage’ are two different things. The former can be advanced in ways that don’t necessarily require investment bankers, but that do involve changing land uses and land management practices.
  2. Any inquiry with the goals this project purports to have should lead with these questions: 
  • How is the water being used now – by whom, for what?
  • What is the environmental requirement for water in the catchment?
  • What is the municipal need for water given projected population growth?
  • What is the optimal commercial use of water in CHB given future climate change and other relevant factors?

    Hopefully this project is not merely an exercise to ‘justify’ a water ‘solution’ that grandfathers in current irrigators in CHB – specifically the 5-6 dairying operations that currently swallow most of the allocated water.

3. Involve the entire community in the so-called “bottom up” exercise from the outset, not just commercial users.

If the project unfolds in a manner that reflects these lessons learned, then it might yield proposals deserving of widespread community support. It won’t take long to see which way the wind blows.

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9 Comments

  1. I would pretty much guarantee that the people on the steering group (with a couple of exceptions) will be looking for ways to help farming over any other purpose – there will be some points making it look like they’re concerned about environment and so on but these will be lightweight and probably get overlooked down the track. CHB is basically dry land farming and irrigation for dairying and so on will only lead to destruction of the environment and cause water shortages over time. I would have very little faith unless they do as you suggest and start putting other interest groups into the structure – ones with alternative viewpoints.

  2. How can these comments/observations/questions get out into the wider media coverage of this issue?

  3. i’d say the wind’s blowing only one way already – for more water use instead of better water use. which completely undermines any credibility this group pretends to have, since water in CHB is already over-allocated. frankly the best use of anyone’s time and money would be to buy those 5-6 big water users, repurpose the farms on sustainable lines, and re-sell them as premium niche concerns. probably saves money overall, and solves the water crisis at the same time. but that’s too simple, eh.

  4. Thank you Tom for your experience and insight. Let’s have security for the entire ecosystem.

  5. Yes Tom. Security for whom? Need to practice a jaundiced eye on this one. Money speaks all languages it seems.

  6. Not much public support for this scheme? When will they address the real problems of over allocation, inappropriate land use, and an aquifer becoming nitrate poisoned?

  7. Why do the regional council allow dairy farming on land that cannot support the requirements? Urban council laws prohibit building sites to the meter..amongst many other constraints..how is it a regional council can agree to a business with no regard for what happens downstream as a negative byproduct of the industry? Why is that the mere fact that it earns a dollar the green light to crash a biological system from the mountains to the sea? Where is the common sense? Surely most farmers know that certain soils and substrate support particular types of farming.. thankyou for highlighting this ongoing blight on a beautiful river Tom.

  8. Yes Ged, as with other commentators who ask how this situation has arisen, it is not due to skewed thinking within the traditional farming communities but rests with past central government priorities and the financial stimulus from investment companies that descend upon the rural sector to cash-in with a solid investment return to their shareholders, regardless of socio-environmental degradation. As so evident with internationally competitive sports, the encroachment of corporate investment leads directly to the destruction of what sport has traditionally been about; part of our way of life, disease infiltrated by the profit-driven, conscienceless drive for investor profit, I think it might be known as “Liberal Capitalism”, unrestrained . Any comments would be of interest to me.

  9. Tom, I mostly share your views as expressed here. I have some respect for Mike, and expect that he will do a better job than the previous lot. You don’t mention who’s funding this project, unless it’s said investment bankers? It will be interesting to see what they come up with, but rest assured that if they’re considering building any dam whatsoever on Conservation land, it will mean war! I hope they’ll take into consideration the cost blow-out on the construction of the Waimea dam, and also the issues with getting the somewhat faltering Wairarapa Water storage project off the ground…

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