The land of limitless opportunity of our youth has proven not to be. On any meaningful economic indicator, such as average household income or employment growth or percentage of residents with tertiary qualifications, Hawke’s Bay now ranks amongst the worst two underperforming economies in New Zealand (the other is Northland).

In addition we face significant environmental challenges.

Some have been resolved. Who remembers those cold spring mornings when most orchardists protected their flowers with frost pots? A pall of smog would hang over Hastings and in those days waking with a nose full of soot was commonplace. Today, wind machines, helicopters and overhead sprinkler systems for frost fighting are the norm.

In my youth every house had an open fire. Firewood and coal sales were big business. However, increased air pollution, mainly from fires and cars, was becoming a problem. This was finally recognized in 2004 when the government introduced national environmental standards for air quality. Hawke’s Bay has done a good job of moving towards cleaner heating systems and controlling rural burn-offs, thus improving air quality throughout the province.

Far bigger challenges remain. We must address them while at the same time not losing any precious economic momentum.

Hawke’s Bay’s population growth is modest – in fact, Wairoa and Central Hawke’s Bay will continue to shrink, while Napier is almost static. Selling our story to attract both tourists and new business and employment cries out for a coordinated regional approach and combined funding from all local bodies. Sadly, with the lack of cooperation and trust between our civic leaders this is unlikely.

Things were different in the decades earlier. Hawke’s Bay’s expanding primary production in the 1950s, 60s and 70s brought jobs, opportunities and wealth for all. The downside was greater pressure on our natural resources.

Examples are easy to find.

Land – the engine room of our regional economy

We have 18,000 hectares of productive land on the Heretaunga Plains (and more beyond). Approximately one-third in pipfruit, one third in wine grapes and the balance a mix of summerfruit, pastoral, annual crops and lifestyle blocks. We are lucky enough to be sitting on one of the most fertile plains in the world, with a mild climate, sufficient water, isolation from many major pests and diseases, a good port and road network, and well-educated, knowledgable growers. In fact, our productivity per hectare for apple growing at 60 tonnes per hectare is comfortably the world’s highest, and three times that of Australia.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that one of our priorities must be to protect that resource. Yet since 1950, Hastings has enlarged its urban boundaries by absorbing 2,000 more hectares, or more than 10% of our available productive land. If the next generation does the same we will have squandered a significant chunk of our productive capacity. Hastings in particular, but also Napier, cries out for leadership to force buildings up, not out. Where is the evidence that we are doing this?

Water – the lifeblood of our production

Water was so abundant in my youth that anyone could drill a bore and pump as much water as they wanted. No one thought about efficient water use or the effect of runoff on river health. No one considered the impact of low flows on our ecosystems or the loss of wetland habitat for many native species. No one even bothered to measure how much water we used.

Even now, many years later, no one has accurately measured the supply versus demand equation for water in the Heretaunga Plains aquifer – how much is available annually through aquifer recharge and how much is actually being used? In each and every one of the past 20 years since monitoring began, the aquifer has fully recharged. That is why the Twyford water ban during the 2013 drought was such nonsense. But we know there is a limit and the evidence suggests we might be getting close to it. The same applies to Ruataniwha and the Tukituki catchment area.

The government now requires us to set minimum flow limits in our waterways and to manage levels of such contaminants as nitrogen and phosphorous to ensure a healthy ecosystem.

We can no longer treat water as a limitless resource. We need to use it more efficiently and we need to look after river health. Many are understandably upset with the recent non-performance of Central Hawke’s Bay’s wastewater treatment system for this reason.

We are going to have to make choices about our water priorities. For instance is a bottling plant that takes a million cubic metres annually a better use than irrigating 300 hectares of apples, or operating a new food processing plant?

If the proposed Ruataniwha dam in its present form fails, the HBRC will need to consider a smaller version to maintain environmental flows.

Landslip sliding away

We have managed to show a similar disregard for our indigenous forests, nearly 80% of which have been removed over the last 150 years. It’s hard not to feel sorry for sheep when you drive through the region. Most have nowhere to shelter from the fierce sun.

Clearing the steeper country caused the problem. Cyclone Bola drew our attention to it in a dramatic way, cutting a swathe of slips and destruction through the hillside pastures. Some farmers saw the light and retired blocks of land into pinus radiata. However thousands of hectares of hill country remain vulnerable. Not just the hills though. Creeks and streams transport the problem to the lowlands and are the single biggest cause of high phosphorous levels. Stock with unencumbered access to streams adds to the level of sedimentation, seriously exacerbating the problem.

The consequences are quantified in recent HBRC reports, which state that we have destroyed 98% of our wetlands and lost 27 species of bird, fish and reptiles from the region by habitat destruction or through the introduction of predators such as possums and feral cats.

Two actions are required: fencing off and establishing riparian plantings next to our waterways and reforesting the hills. The scale of the problem is enormous. We have 21,000 kilometres of streams and rivers and 150,000 hectares of ‘at risk’ farmland hillsides. It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix. Where do we start and how do we fund it?

Sea level rise – our greatest threat?

In case we don’t have enough issues to occupy us, we also need to commence planning for climate change. The predictions are that the East Coast will be drier and warmer. For sun worshippers that sounds okay, but there is also a prediction of sea level rise of a metre or more by 2100 and larger storm surges on an already eroded coastline.

Think for a moment about the infrastructure at risk. A short list: the Hastings wastewater treatment plant, all coastal roads, the airport, the Napier CBD and the railway line. Not to mention several coastal settlements and schools.

Some big tasks requiring careful management lie ahead for Hawke’s Bay. They will need a coordinated approach, committed regional leadership and strong support from the many affected stakeholders. It is hard to imagine a successful outcome if each local authority regards its own patch as the most important priority.

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