Tuki Tuki valley river Havelock North

Sorry, it’s about water … again! 

Forget about Covid and potential interruption of anything resembling ‘normal’ health care. Forget about any number of labour shortages or supply chain glitchs that could cripple our regional economy. Forget about climate change. Forget about the speed limit for the Napier-TaupŌ road. 

I know that many people are passionately involved and upset about these distractions, but for pure political theatre and intrigue of the highest order, nothing in Hawke’s Bay beats water. 

How much do we have? How much do we use or need? Who controls it? Who gets it? How clean and healthy is it? Who’s responsible when it floods our streets or sickens us? 

All this fuss over a free resource. You would think we were sitting on oil (thankfully, we’re over that phase) or cadmium. 

And you might be surprised that there is still perplexing uncertainty over how much water we actually have and need in the region. That answer is about to come from a Regional Council analysis – Regional Water Assessment – examining water supply and demand prospects over the next 50 years. Answering questions like: Does CHB need an additional 100 million cubes of water? What interventions might close any identified gaps? 

Think of water decision-making as happening around a three-sided table occupied by commercial users (irrigators and industrial), councils (purportedly representing you, the household consumer), and ‘the environment’ (itself voiceless and totally dependent on humans to champion its requirements, with occasional help from the Regional Council). 

As these three parties bicker and compete, the Government watches from above and occasionally dictates critical rules of the game through various laws and policy instruments. 

For example, when putting water to use, the highest priority must go to protecting the environment, then to human consumption, then to economic use. 

Likewise, the Government dictates environmental bottom lines for water quality, most recently in the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater. While new national drinking water standards will be promulgated later this year and enforced by a new national agency. 

And at the same time, the Government has made clear that Māori hold a co-governance role with regard to all water matters and has proposed significant centralisation over investment in and management of local stormwater and wastewater infrastructure, currently the domain of, in many cases, largely niggardly and/or inept local councils. 

So that sets the stage for the political theatre unfolding in Hawke’s Bay in 2022. There’s not a bad seat in the house. 

Heretaunga Plains 

A few acts back, it appeared that water issues critical to the central part of the region were on a path to resolution via the TANK (Tūtaekurī, Ahuriri, Ngaruroro, Karamū) multi-stakeholder initiative to produce a plan change encompassing water management of those waterways and the underlying Heretaunga aquifer. 

The TANK-recommended Plan Change 9 involved compromise from all parties but proffered a comprehensive, consensual framework for managing water access and quality across the Plains. Unfortunately, the draft Plan, first presented in August 2018, was left twisting in the wind, left to the mercy of the Regional Council’s intractable Regional Planning Committee (the region’s first experience with co-governance). Finally, formally notified in May 2020, the Plan Change, after some 240 submissions, still sits before an Independent Hearing Panel, which must make its decisions by May, and those would be appealable to the Environment Court. 

The HBRC-recommended Plan includes a cap on new water allocations across the Plains, applies a sinking lid ‘reasonable use’ approach to existing water consents, provides more demanding water quality standards, and sets out ‘source protection zones’ where on-land activities would be more tightly regulated to avoid aquifer and stream contamination. 

With the HBRC Plan Change pending, to stage left, some environmental and Māori interests mounted an effort to have the entire Ngaruroro River (from mountains to sea) placed under a Water Conservation Order, an instrument intended to afford higher levels of protection to especially valuable and threatened waterways. WCOs involve their own Special Tribunal process, with submissions and appeals, which has resulted in duplicative consideration of many of the issues dealt with through the TANK process. HBRC is “hopeful” that the Environment Court will make its final decision in early 2022. 

And yet another disputed plan change initiated in 2019, affecting all of HB, involves protection of so-called “Outstanding Water Bodies”. So far, a Hearings Panel has designated 15 OWBs in Hawke’s Bay, with another 23 candidates not making the cut, but this process too remains in the midst of Environment Court-led mediation. 

Eventually, possibly this year, some wizard will need to sort out what rules have actually survived to manage water flowing through and under Hawke’s Bay’s heartland. 

Central Hawke’s Bay 

In CHB, the main prequels to today’s theatre were efforts to rid the Tukituki River of contaminants (i.e. sewage) from CHB’s inadequate treatment systems, and of course the ill-fated Ruataniwha dam. 

Under an 2007 Environment Court order to clean up its act by 2014, the CHBDC fumbled through a number of failed attempts (including the infamous ‘floating wetlands’). With water quality standards unmet. The current regime, to its credit, has taken its responsibility more seriously, but the needed infrastructure improvements are still a work-in-progress. 

Failed previous advocacy for the $300 million Ruantaniwha Dam (plus that amount in distribution costs) is a book unto itself. [For those new to the issue, I disclose being an ardent opponent of that dam.] 

But supporters – Tukituki Water Security Project, led by CHB farmer and former NZ trade ambassador Mike Petersen – are attempting to breathe new life into the proposed dam on the Makaroro. Centralines is the primary financial supporter of this campaign, to the tune of $200k; however, the CHBDC has also allocated $250k for examination of ‘water security’ options, without transparency as to how those funds might be used. 

One might think that allocating $450k of Centralines consumers’ and CHBDC ratepayers’ money constitutes imprudently throwing ‘good money after bad’ given that the bedrock impediment to damming the Makaroro is a Supreme Court ruling blocking a DOC decision that would have allowed officially protected conservation land to be inundated. 

Dam 2 proponents are coy as to how they might remove that obstacle. Their public ‘re-scoping’ report simply says: “This land issue requires a legislative resolution similar to the Waimea Dam land and Tangata Whenua sponsorship/ leadership on this issue is critical.” 

Proponents, claiming transparency, will need to be more transparent about their intentions on this key matter. 

The most likely option would be for the CHB District Council to propose a ‘local bill’. Local bills deal with matters confined to a particular locality and must be promoted by the local authority with jurisdiction over that locality. As the Parliament website notes: “For example, a local bill may ask Parliament to lift a land-use restriction or permit a land-use for a particular place that would normally be outside the law.” 

Notice of an intention to promote a local bill must be advertised. In this case, one (or all) of three Labour MPs claiming some representation of CHB – Kieran McAnulty, Anna Lorck, Meka Whaitiri – would take charge of the bill. 

McAnulty and Lorck responded to BayBuzz inquiries with ‘wait and see’ responses, Lorck commenting: “…the project is still in its early stages and there’s been no formal request to sponsor a Local Bill. I’m unable to comment on a Local Bill without knowing the detail of what’s in it.” That said, Lorck was a vocal supporter of Dam 1 and it is rather unlikely she would find Dam 2 less appealing. 

Of course, the Government itself could introduce legislation to accomplish the aim. If the Labour Government or its local MPs are not interested, then the Petersen group must hope for a National-led Government before the existing dam consents expire in four years. 

At least some Māori would need to support that initiative. Ngāti Kahungunu strongly opposed the Ruataniwha scheme, so proponents of any resurrection will need to convince decision-makers that their Māori are the ones that really count! 

Without a sanction to inundate the conservation land, the myriad other issues surrounding a major dam are moot and won’t need to be re-debated. But that would still leave the challenge of how best to supply and allocate water in CHB. 

Any genuinely honest inquiry into that must begin by reconsidering how how CHB water is presently (over)allocated … something dam proponents are loathe to do. 

Is it appropriate for 10 CHB water users (most of them dairy operations) to take 59% of the allocated groundwater and for ten (including the same biggest groundwater users) to take 67% of the surface water – a total of 32 million cubes? For comparison, CHBDC’s municipal allocation is 3.3 million cubes. 

Any schemes to provide additional water must address the ‘sanctity’ and saneness of the current allocation. Otherwise they would effectively ‘grandfather’ in practices that are patently inequitable and unsustainable. 

Better to ‘call in’ all Ruataniwha groundwater and related surface water consents with the purpose of negotiating an arrangement more suitable to ecological needs and future sustainable land uses in CHB. 

BayBuzz will stand watch on Dam 2, starting by raising legitimate questions and investigating underlying assumptions. 

While the Petersen group ponders its DOC strategy, other water schemes are afloat in CHB. 

So-called ‘Tranche 2’ water – 15 million cubes the Dam Commission ‘found’ available in the over-allocated Ruataniwha aquifer back in 2015 – is being sought by a group of nine applicants via the normal consenting process. Except for them, no one with any knowledge of the situation believes that water is there for the taking. Here’s what HBRC has said: 

“There remains significant uncertainty over the scale of residual adverse effects resulting from Tranche 2 abstraction. We have concerns over the potential scale of adverse effects on wetlands, streams and wells across the Basin, but particularly in areas where there is already significant Tranche 1 abstraction occurring. We also still have concerns about how the Tranche 2 proposal will work in extreme years (worse than a 1 in 10 year event) and the scale of effects in these years when augmentation may not be able to continue. 

“Furthermore, we have concerns over the impacts on water quality from farm system changes as a result of irrigation and note that a number of the properties are located in catchments where the instream nitrogen target is already significantly exceeded. Land use consent is already required for these properties and would not likely be granted to allow for any increase in nitrogen loss. We note that for dairy farms wishing to expand irrigation, land use and discharge consents are required under the NES FW and that a consent cannot be granted unless they are able to demonstrate expansion will not lead to any increase in load or concentrations of contaminants in the catchment.” 

The Regional Council, which opposed the Commission on this matter at the time, is required by law to process these applications. As HBRC is a regulator in the matter, the consents will be adjudged by an independent hearings panel. 

And lastly there is the HBRC-sponsored experiment with Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) in CHB, which involves capturing high-flow surface water and allowing it to soak into the aquifer (or be pumped in) so as to support groundwater extraction in dry periods. 

Some environmentalists and Māori question the approach, seeing it as a band-aid to cover the underlying problem, which is excessive use of water for commercial benefit, and worrying that the nature and quality of the aquifer water will be adversely affected. 

Planning for this has been completed, as well as extensive consultation with affected landowners and mana whenua. Withdrawing the high-flow supply water from the Waipawa has been consented; the next step is seeking consent to discharge the water into the aquifer. As this is a pilot, the project is very localized and consent is limited to five years. BayBuzz has reported in detail on the MAR proposal in our Nov/Dec magazine (article here: www.baybuzz.co.nz/ water-solution-or-playing-god

Napier 

Napier’s water problems revolve around too much rather than too little water. This is underscored each time a heavy rainfall results in sewage spilling into Napier streets and the Ahuriri Estuary. 

With much of Napier’s water infrastructure failure the legacy of previous regimes, it still falls upon the current mayor and council to provide new commitment and direction – and resources – to begin clawing back to appropriately modern, robust and reliable water services. 

To its credit, Napier’s current long-term plan, reaching to 2031, allocates $74 million over its ten years to improving and protecting water supply, $73.5 million to improving wastewater infrastructure and $42.3 million to improving stormwater systems. 

What NCC now needs to deliver is regular clear reporting detailing its progress with implementation of this plan. As it stands, NCC has no credibility to rant against the Government’s ‘3 Waters’ reform plan (addressed below). 

Wairoa 

For years the Wairoa District Council has dumped its community’s sewage – even mortuary waste – into the Wairoa River. Throughout, Wairoa’s political leadership has pleaded good intentions thwarted by Council poverty … ‘We know its nasty, but it’s the best we can afford.” 

Only last October were new consent conditions put into place that will – perhaps – see this practice stopped by requiring the establishment of 50 hectares of land-based irrigation (using treated wastewater), adding 30,000 cubes of additional effluent storage capacity (to mitigate ‘emergency dumps of sewage into the river) and commencing UV treatment and filtration. 

If these routine sewage-into-river practices were happening in Napier (hmmm!) or Hastings, imagine the public clamour! But insulated from regional scrutiny and concern by Devil’s Elbow, Wairoa has been left to operate to Third World standards. 

Freeing Mayor Craig Little, ironically, to be a highly vocal champion of opposition to the Government’s ‘3 Waters’ proposal to take these matters out of the hands of local councils unable or unwilling to provide their citizens with modern water treatment processes and facilities. 

So, let’s turn to ‘3 Waters’. 

Issue too big for locals 

Each of our territorial authorities has its water management horror stories, and these reflect systematic neglect of prudent water infrastructure management. 

In reports prepared for the Water New Zealand National Performance Review, the Hastings and Napier councils reported their pipeline conditions as follows: 

• Hastings: 17% of drinking water pipelines are in poor condition, and 9% of wastewater network is in poor condition. 

• Napier: 42% of drinking water pipelines are in poor condition, 35% of wastewater network is in poor condition and 10% of the stormwater network is in poor condition. 

Triggered by the Havelock North campylobacter disaster – but reflecting failures like those described in this article that routinely occur nation-wide – the Government has proposed a major consolidation of drinking water, stormwater and wastewater management – i.e., ‘3 Waters’ – into four pan-regional water entities. To be in place as of July 2024, these would have the scale, resources and professional competence to tackle the needed upgrades equitably for all New Zealanders. 

Put simply, a nation-wide pattern of local government neglect and/or incompetence with respect to these most critical services has been well-documented … and will cost in the neighbourhood of $185 billion to fix. BayBuzz has reported extensively online on the issues surrounding the Government proposal (Search “3 Waters” on our website). 

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has commented: “Local councils are trying to deal with the upkeep of aging infrastructure, which is literally crumbling in some of our biggest cities. They face the additional strains of growing population, climate change resilience and extreme weather events, as well as competing for a limited number of skilled workers to do the job. 

“It would be irresponsible to pour taxpayers’ money into propping up a broken system, or let households face unprecedented rises in water costs. Currently 43 of the 67 councils do not have the revenue to cover their water services operating expenditures at the moment, let alone once the infrastructure starts failing.” 

“Irresponsible” is dead right. 

However, our councils are bitterly opposing the reorganisation, shamelessly camouflaging their historic neglect and future inability to afford modern, well-maintained, human- and environmentally-safe systems with a campaign for ‘local control’ and ‘democracy’. 

And plenty of locals are soaking it up and signing petitions, apparently unable to connect the dots between their sickness, sewage in their streets, estuaries and rivers – and the local councils responsible for these failures. One can only marvel at the hutzpah of our local politicians and the gullibility of so many uninformed residents … effectively, fighting for their right to be abused. 

So far, to its credit, the Government has stood by its proposal, while negotiating around the governance structure to accommodate both accountability for billions in future taxpayer investment and appropriate local input. 

Takeaways 

In considering this smorgasbord of regional water challenges, here are some themes that emerge. 

Across the board, central Government is asserting itself vigorously – from water quality standards to infrastructure change. Politically this seems to reflect significant Labour Government distrust of local governments’ will or ability to deal with tough issues. The defendants label this ‘anti-democratic’. 

Resolving critical water issues proceeds at a glacial pace, given knowledge gaps and uncertainty and processes intended to give all parties their due hearing. Opportunities to delay abound. The resources required to participate effectively are overwhelmingly in the hands of commercial interests. And the battles never end. 

Māori influence on water-related matters is steadily being amplified in all water policy instruments. With respect to water, co-governance is either here … or at the doorstep. And at this stage, Māori involvement, its value notwithstanding, can be hugely disruptive as that community sorts out its roles, internal politics, knowledge and engagement capacities, and true policy objectives (e.g., environmental protection versus ‘a piece of the action’). 

The environmental bar will be lifted. Public demand for safe, environmentally sustainable water management and outcomes is here to stay … and is reinforced by the expectations of our overseas customers. The marketplace rules. 

At the same time, however, most of the public are uninformed and largely unengaged in the machinations around who controls water and water decision-making in the region. Those with commercial interests in water ‘work the process’ assiduously, bringing more influence to the table more persistently than either Māori or environmentalists at this point. 

While we’re great at weekend tree-planting, there is no well-resourced environmental organisation in Hawke’s Bay capable of conducting serious research, staging a major public education or lobbying campaign, or filing a legal intervention. 

And that’s dangerous to the public good. 

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5 Comments

  1. The consistent theme through the CHB dam issue in particular is that for the commercial interests it’s not about need, it’s about greed.
    We don’t see these farmers starving do we?

    1. I couldn’t agree more with Pat, there is total folly in trying to farm in areas that are just not suitable to do so. I witnessed the people of Napier remain silent whilst a former Mayor pushed through projects like the MTG, the Deco buses, The Memorial Centre debacle, a failed Velodrome project (with help from the then NCC CEO) whilst the stormwater and sewer systems went ignored and now the folk of Napier find themselves facing huge costs and increased rates to sort out the clapped out services infrastructure.
      Whilst I do not live in CHB, I would hate to see the ratepayers of CHB lumbered with the costs of fighting nature by needing to irrigate ground unsuitable for particular farming practices, highly probable ground water contamination from farming on permeable grounds and the environmental and monetary costs that go with that well into the future.
      Do not allow yourselves to wear the cost of a tiny group of already well off business people who will implement change for their own personal growth under the guise of betterment for all.
      Travelling through CHB I do not see an area in recession, indeed the area’s population seems to be flourishing without the big farming expansions these unneeded, publicly funded dams are being touted as being required for CHB to continue to grow by a small group of self serving individuals who are in positions of influence and power over your resources and wish to use them for their own personal gain.

  2. Those in CHB hoping to resurrect the Ruataniwha dam scheme via some legal chicanery are being naive about the amount of opposition they will face if they take a step in that direction. They can try and re-dress the proposals as “environment first”, but the public isn’t that stupid. They’ll be back in the supreme court before long. Credit to Baybuzz for keeping the light shining on these issues. Without your coverage these people would operate in the shadows and the deals would be done without proper public scrutiny. HBT seems to have given up asking the hard questions and one has to wonder…why?

  3. Nice overview Tom, although your conclusions and your position on Dam 2 are subjective (aren’t we all!).
    As I see it, Dam 1 was the victim of insufficient landowner support, presumption of further dairying intensification on leaky soils (a good starting assumption at the time!), some clever politics around a small patch of conservation land and some disappointing politics from Councillors including yourself.
    The hort sector would say that it could put extra water to very good use in CHB, with a net increase in social and environmental good. But for all sorts of reasons we never quite seem to get to that sort of conversation.
    Here’s hoping you can support a more constructive and less political airing of Dam 2 than you did with Dam 1, with a more nuanced weighing of costs, benefits, risks & opportunities.
    Disclosure – I was somewhat involved in the Tuki plan, periphally involved in the Ruataniwha & heavily involved in the TANK plan. I now work for HBRC but not in the water security space. So I figure I can comment here.

  4. I’m sure some people could put water to good use in CHB
    We don’t need a dam for that
    All we need to do is use the water we have in a wise way
    Water hungry and polluting industries such as intensive dairy are the cause of the problem
    Change that status quo and there is no longer grounds to justify a dam

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