Eugenie Sage

Dilution is not the solution to pollution

by Eugenie Sage

I was in Napier earlier last week trying to discourage the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC) from proceeding with its mega dam, mega risky, $233 million Ruataniwha irrigation and hydro scheme.

The scheme involves an 83 metre high concrete and rock dam and a 5 km long reservoir flooding the upper reaches of the Makaroro River to irrigate 25,000 ha on the Ruataniwha Plains and generate power.

Eugenie Sage at Council

Eugenie Sage at Council presentation seeking positive resolution, not more pollution. Photo: Duncan Brown, Hawke's Bay Today

National’s “dig it, drill it, mine it, irrigate it, develop it” apology for an economic development plan, and Government’s promise to divert some of the proceeds of its proposed state assets sales to irrigation development has encouraged the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council in its “think big” agenda for manipulating rivers.

Regional councillors will decide on 31 October whether Council should apply for resource consents for the scheme. (Yes that’s correct, instead of behaving as a normal regional council and deciding applications for consents to take, divert and use water, the regional council or its investment company (HBRIC) will be the applicant).

The Council launched its feasibility studies for the scheme this week. It’s promoting the scheme as a solution to the Tukituki River’s water woes. The Tukituki is a river in trouble. Its regular summer low flows and algal mats are a consequence of over-allocation, poor nutrient management and discharges from sub-standard sewage treatment plants.

The dam would be operated as both a hydro and irrigation scheme so there is no certainty it would deliver the increased summertime flows claimed by Council. When irrigators don’t want water, generators will.

Even if flows increased, nutrient leaching from an additional 25,000 hectares of irrigated intensive farmland would increase nutrient loadings on the river. Dilution is not the solution to pollution.

In June I wrote about the Council’s confusion about its role. Under a very assertive CEO the council has tasked itself as an economic development agency and irrigation promoter. It is selling off Council assets such as leasehold land and potentially Council shares in the Port of Napier to throw $80 million of public funds at the Ruataniwha scheme.

Instead of being an objective environmental manager and RMA regulator, the Council’s planning documents are now skewed towards selling the Ruataniwha project to the public. Its “Tukituki Choices” document is one example.

Two of its four future scenarios of freshwater management in the Hawke’s Bay, presume the Ruataniwha scheme has gone ahead, and two presume that it has not. This all or nothing approach is a misleading and overly simplistic projection of possible futures. No alternatives to large-scale water storage are discussed. There is no evaluation of the benefits of smaller scale on-farm water storage options, appropriate land use and efficiency gains that are provided by technological advances such as the rise of precision irrigation.

Crucial policies and rules which will guide water management in Hawke’s Bay (such as Plan Change 5 to the RPS and changes to the Regional Resource Management Plan) have yet to be finalised.

With the Council selling off its landholdings and other assets to pay for the Ruataniwha scheme, it’s difficult to have any confidence that the plan process will deliver strong environmental standards and rules such as nutrient limits and effective flow regimes  because these might constrain the scheme’s operation and financial viability.   How seriously would council consider public submissions which sought stronger water quality objectives, policies and methods (eg on nutrient leaching) for example?

The Regional Council is failing to adequately consult its community, who will have to live with its environmental impacts and misdirected Council expenditure and inevitable cost blowouts if the project proceeds. In June the HBRC decided in principle to spend $80 million on the scheme before the feasibility studies were available. The public had no opportunity to make informed submissions.

If the Council was confident that the case for the dam and hydro scheme and its proposed expenditure of public money stacked up, it would agree to a referendum across the region as organisations such as the Te Taiao Environment Forum are calling for.

A recessionary climate is not the time for costly “Think-Big” mega projects.  Instead of damming  the Makaroro and increasing the nutrient loading on our waterways, we need informed community dialogue on appropriate land uses in water scarce zones, how best to reduce nutrient leaching, encourage investment in efficient irrigation technology and improve the health, flows and quality of our river systems and aquifers.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Eugenie Sage on Mon, October 1st, 2012   

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