by Eugenie Sage
There is something strange and disturbing going on in Hawke’s Bay involving the proverbial fox and the hen house.
Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC) is the enthusiastic principle promoter of the $230-million Ruataniwha Plains water storage scheme, a project which would see a 77 metre high dam and reservoir built on the Makaroro River to irrigate another 30,000 hectares of on the Ruataniwha Plains, and a dam and irrigation scheme on the Ngaruroro River.
The functions of a regional council are quite clearly spelled out here.
It would seem that a majority of HBRC councillors and senior staff are confused about their role as an environmental regulator, instead taking on the role of an economic development agency and irrigation promoter.
There is an obvious conflict of interest between the regional council promoting and funding the Ruataniwha and Ngaruroro irrigation projects while also setting the RMA rules under which the schemes will be considered (the flow and allocation regimes for the region’s rivers and aquifers and any related land use rules to protect water quality).
The Council is proposing to subsidise agribusiness and spend more than $80 million of Council and ratepayer funds on the Ruataniwha scheme and $27 million on the Ngaruroro project. With this at stake there’s a risk that those in Council promoting the schemes would want to ensure that their own Council plans and RMA rules don’t create any RMA red lights for the projects. The health of the region’s rivers and aquifers potentially loses out to the Council’s enthusiasm for irrigation.
Even if the Council asks the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Wellington to decide the resource consent applications who will be advising the EPA ? How can the public be assured of an independent RMA process and community involvement?
The Council has also neglected to follow good process in its decision making. It is due to sign off on its draft Long Term Plan next Wednesday (27 June) after a round of public consultation. The Plan sets out the Council’s budget and activities for the next decade from 2012-22. The Plan will lock in $80 million worth of ratepayer funds into the Ruataniwha project.
Presumably many of the 550 submitters on this Plan (a record for the HBRC) would have liked to look at the economic feasibility before they formed an opinion whether Council should spend up large on the Ruataniwha scheme over the next 10 years. That would make sense, wouldn’t it?
Just one problem… The economic feasibility study has not been publicly released. Nor have any of the dozens of other feasibility studies for this project, many of which have not yet been completed ! The only analysis publicly available is pre-feasibility studies which in some cases are now three years old.
How were the people of the Hawkes Bay to make an informed decision here? Would you sign off a contract to pay the builders of your dream home before you saw the specs and knew what you were getting ? Of course you wouldn’t, but this is exactly what the HBRC has asked of its ratepayers and community.
The Hawkes Bay Regional Council has been very guarded about how much information it will release on the project and when after the Plan is signed off. This putting of the cart before the horse makes a mockery of democracy and of the $4.8 million worth of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars that have already been spent on feasibility studies don’t you think?
If you want to find out more about water issues in Hawke’s Bay check out the May-June issue of Bay Buzz. It’s a great read.