Last Thursday, HB Today virtually endorsed the Regional Council’s proposed dam project for Central Hawke’s Bay, with passing reference that conservation and iwi concerns about water quality would need to be “acceptably managed”.

Here’s the editorial, which asserts: “Early financial modelling suggests a $300 million a year boost to the region’s gross domestic product from the dam and irrigation project.” Gee whiz, I thought, that sounds even better than the projected payoff promised from the ‘regional’ sports park!

HB Today was kind enough to publish my letter to the editor questioning their enthusiasm, which I expand upon here …

As a member of the stakeholder group reviewing this proposal, I would advise HB Today to keep its powder dry.

“Acceptably managed”?! For sure, water quality throughout the Tukituki catchment will need to be protected — indeed, enhanced — if this project is to proceed. That will be a mandatory. How the Regional Council hopes to guarantee that protection and enhancement is yet to be revealed … but they will offer their case over the next several months.

However, before we even get to assessing those issues, the overall economic and financial viability of the scheme must be established. For one thing (and this is only one of many financial issues yet to be addressed), there would certainly be costs associated with any scheme promising to mitigate the effects of adding as much as 25,000 hectares of intensified farming to the Tukituki catchment. What are those costs? How accurately will they be projected? Who will bear them?

The HBT editorial takes the economic benefits as a given, but that case is still to be even presented to stakeholders or the public, let alone convincingly made. This is a potentially $150 million (or more) project. Heaps of rigorous financial analysis must be put on the table before the public will know if this dam holds any water.

Time after time, the accuracy of our councils regarding their projections of the economic costs and benefits of infrastructure projects — from Splash Planet to the Opera House to Ocean Beach development to the new museum to the sports park to the new sewage treatment plants — has been challenged, then dismissed out of hand by councils and their consultants, and then the critics have been proven more right than wrong.

Councils, in their determination to sell pet projects, oversell the benefits and understate the costs. And sadly, only the extremely rare councillor, like the eternally pesky Wayne Bradshaw on the Hastings Council, even challenges the numbers. Which Regional Councillor will demand clear and convincing answers when the dam project comes to its decision point? Most of them, like the HB Today, already gush with unqualified enthusiasm. And even if the will exists, the homework required to be a probing defender of the public’s purse and environment when faced by a council staff/consultant juggernaut exceeds the capacity of most councillors.

Yet the financial and environmental implications of this $150 million (or more) dam scheme make the projects mentioned above pale into relative insignificance. Imagine if they get it wrong!

We all need to know much more about this proposal … and then adequate time to consider the full facts and arguments carefully. Maybe a convincing case will be put forward by the Regional Council. It would be great (I would argue essential) to have a win/win outcome from such a massive investment. But it’s premature for anyone to be making any endorsements … the case is still to be made.

Tom Belford

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1 Comment

  1. Tom,

    I will take that as a compliment .it has always my position that Councillors are there to ensure that ratepayers get the best value from all involved.

    Its a shame this view isn't contagious.

    Wayne

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