Dilution is not the solution to pollution

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.

7 Comments Posted

  1. @bjchip 2:06PM I’m locally involved with this issue and power generation is only a minor side issue.
    The dams initial reason for being is a solution to the HBRC overallocating water resources on the Ruataniwha Plains and thereby degredating the Tuki Tuki river.
    The challenge for the HBRC is that it does not make economic sence – to get a financial return on the schemes $600m cost the water will be unaffordable for farmers so either they reduce the cost of water and run the scheme at a loss or very low returns (something proposed private investors won’t be to happy about) or they allow increased intensification leading to higher fertiliser (N & P) runoff, which is what they are proposing.
    I do not think that the dam makes economic or environmental sence and should be canned altogether. Additionally the way that HBRC is ramming the sceheme through is an appalling abuse of the democratic process.
    The citizens who oppose the scheme and the way the process has been managed cross all of the political spectrum. Watch this space.

  2. Thanks Keef. More information is always better.

    Not living there I don’t really know what they’re up to… but given the way they generally vote in the elections I should have made a better guess 🙂

    …and I don’t know what it was in Eugenie’s writing that actually made me suspicious.

    So we have to disabuse the public of the misinformation being used to promote the project as well as simply opposing it, and make it clear that it really is not a power project. Otherwise we’re going to get roughly handled in the press (again).

    We’ll need to push enough to force them into actually MAKING it a power project (reserving the water for power first and publicly committing themselves to that usage), or abandoning the claim and pretense entirely.

    At which point we get to pound them on purely environmental grounds.

    Need to make clear what we want to get out of this, which is either a power generation dam, or NO dam, which gives us a solid place to stand when we are assailed for being against it in the press.

    Positioning has to be tuned to the situation… and expectations have to be realistic.

  3. BJ – as a Hawkes Bay resident i can tell you the dam is all about irrigation for more intensive farming – that is all i have seen in the HBRC newsletter and other publications – today is the first time i heard anything about power generation.

    It looks like HBRC will continue with it’s toothless policies on water pollution too – i haven’t seen anything about HBRC insisting on protection of the waterways – just an assumption that the farmers will use “best practice”, and that a lot of them will be converted to dairy farms ‘cos that’s where the money is.

  4. The observed default response to any proposal for any dam for any purpose is “No”.

    If sediment can collect behind a dam, it can also be removed and controlled, flushed away or sequestered if it is contaminated by something upstream – improving the quality of water downstream. There is NO impediment to actually building a dam system that is maintainable in terms of sediment deposits, apart from the requirement to actually think about doing it, just a little, before building the dam.

    I am concerned with US Trevor, not fish, and I strongly suspect that we are in fact going to need all the generation we can get built, because we aren’t building half fast enough. The questionable issue here is the emphasis on irrigation for expansion of farming, possibly/probably intensive farming, and I DO suspect that this is the primary motivation for this particular dam… and I am as you are, lacking in details…. but my default answer is not the same as most Greens.

    If asked about building a hydro dam… or a windfarm… or a geothermal plant – the default answer is “yes”.

    An irrigation dam gets the full treatment or this… with two conflicting purposes… needs to be questioned. I am concerned that the response here was reflexive – not questioning. It has that appearance, and we have that history.


  5. And here I have to respectfully disagree with BJ. New Zealand needs considerably more renewable power, in part to replace our fossil-fuelled thermal plants and in part to replace our other uses of coal, gas and liquid transport fuels. However we are not short of renewable energy sources and we don’t need to harvest every last one.

    Hydro power is very handy for keeping the lights on and the computers running. (So is geothermal.) We should definitely be looking at harnessing more hydro resources, but each should be looked at carefully on its own merits and impacts. For example, how much shingle is washed down that river – shingle that will be trapped behind any dam and build up over time? What will a dam’s impact be on fish life? In this case, I simply have no information to base any judgement about the proposed dam on, although I do accept that intensive irrigation is probably not a good idea.


  6. I wouldn’t go that far OneTrack, and I do take issue with the notion that the farmers get first call on the water resources of this country, but I also take issue with the idea that we should not build dams, make power and control flooding and water flows as best we can.

    “Even if flows increased, nutrient leaching from an additional 25,000 hectares of irrigated intensive farmland would increase nutrient loadings on the river.”

    See the “irrigated intensive farmland” really does conflict with the power generation, and the issues with the addition of intensive farming where the waste flow winds up in the river are real.

    So her objection isn’t (I think) about shutting down existing farms, just limiting the growth of that particular source of water pollution on that river. Meh! Some farming is probably feasible. I object to the use of urea and other manufactured fertilizer, but I am pretty sure that something not so damaging can be done.

    The flip side however, is that we as a nation need every erg of renewable power we can generate, and that alone justifies a dam.

    Which is where I part company with my own party representative here.

    I can’t work out why it is that this party so often opposes dams for power generation.

  7. It sounds lke “positive resolution” means do nothing, close farms and have meetings of the committee.

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