Last Wednesday the Regional Council enthusiastically ‘received’ the staff report recommending the ‘feasibility’ of the $600 million CHB water storage scheme.

The depth of Councillor questioning of the staff/consultant cadre of presenters was, shall we say, well shy of penetrating … not even remotely skeptical. With so much at stake, one would assume Councillors might have done at least enough homework to ask a challenging question or two.

But no such luck from this band. As Green MP Eugenie Sage commented in her presentation to the Council earlier in the day, this Council has clearly decided it is in the economic development business, setting aside its environmental protection duties.

Not a single question was asked regarding the substantially increased level of nutrients that will be dumped into the river if farming intensifies, or about the adequacy of measures staff/consultants claim will be adopted by 100% of farmers in the scheme to mitigate that damage.

Not a word was said about the recent precedent-setting Environment Court decision on the Horizon Regional Council’s ‘One Plan’, which will require far more stringent protection of waterways as farming intensifies.

Not a word was said in the staff/consultant presentation about the fact that not a single environmental leader in Hawke’s Bay is yet prepared to support the dam. Five of us who have served on the Stakeholders consultation group have made that crystal clear to Council. However, the views of the environmental community are irrelevant to this Council, who dismiss environmental leaders — most of whom have examined the scheme far more closely than any Councillor — as uninformed and/or misguided. Or, as HBRC CEO Andrew Newman has put it, environmentalists have no skin in the game.

You might have noticed above that I italicised the phrase “if farming intensifies”.

That’s because the Council, after more than two years of ‘consultation’, cannot produce today a single farmer in the footprint of the proposed irrigation scheme, with accountant and banker in tow, who actually wants to buy into the scheme. I keep waiting for the petition to be tabled from potentially affected and passionate farmers … “We beg you to build the dam!”

Yet all the consultants advise that ‘farmer uptake’ is the key variable to the economic viability of the plan.

Did a single Councillor ask about the ‘farmer uptake’ situation? Of course not. That’s the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about.

Inconsistencies and challengeable assumptions abound in the feasibility report. Councillors would be aware of this if they bothered to do their homework instead of rushing to endorse. For example, Councillor McGregor asked the HBRC’s financial adviser why horticulture and viticulture were not included on the list of land uses that the bankers consider financially viable under the scheme. He was told those activities simply didn’t return enough profit to make the cut. However, the background report on new jobs promised by the scheme attributes about half of those jobs to horticulture and viticulture. HUH?! However woolly their projections, at least the consultants might get on the same page for appearance sake.

I could go on and on.

Meantime, the Council has distracted the public with its propaganda masterpiece, Tukituki Choices, which is even more flawed than the feasibility study as a public education or consultation tool. In my view, that document and its four ‘scenarios’ are not worth comment.

Readers instead need to focus foremost on the water storage feasibility study (available here). Get it and read it. And when it leaves you with more questions than answers, communicate your concerns directly to Councillors (here are their email addresses). Insist upon more time to understand the full implications of this $600 million proposal. As it stands, you have only until October 15 to make your views known. Councillors intend to bless the project on October 31.

Tom Belford

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