Tom Belford: She'll be all right. Yeah, right!

By Tom Belford

Tom Belford
Tom Belford

In the last 10 years, when have you ever heard anything about the regional council that gave you confidence in its commitment or ability to effectively manage our waterways, aquifers, lakes or marine environment?

Think CHB sewage (non)treatment, cattle in the Tuki, feedlots emptying into streams and aquifers, over-allocation of water for irrigation, steadily degrading Ahuriri Estuary, millions of tonnes of sediment per annum channeled from various rivers into a once thriving fishery (Hawke Bay), rising levels of nitrates in our aquifers, use of the Karamu Stream as a commercial drain, the tragi-comedy called Lake Tutira. And more.

The latest indictment comes from the gastro calamity Inquiry, where the board has criticised the regional council (and HDC) for being asleep at the wheel despite warning events and signals since 1998.

Decades of snoring.

In 2013, voters began to turn around the sad ship of the regional council, electing four new councillors representing constituencies around Hastings. But those four still were a minority on council, and the majority five maintained the status quo, with many of the issues noted above worsening.

In 2016, voters advanced the task of re-directing the council, electing two more progressive councillors largely aligned with the re-elected four from Hastings.

Moving forward, what changes might that bring?

Standing before the regional council is its most consequential environmental decision ever - whether to proceed with the Ruataniwha dam. By far the most important credibility test for the "refreshed" council.

I stress "environmental" decision, because the first duty of the regional council is to maintain and improve our environment. Any other benefits it seeks to achieve - such as underwriting irrigation water and capital gains for 200 CHB farmers - must accord with that primary responsibility.

Many voters thought they had put the dam issue to bed by electing a majority of councillors who could be relied upon to terminate the project.

However, the dam received a "cup of tea" reprieve, while council awaited the still-pending Supreme Court "land swap" decision that could itself nullify the project.

The tea break yielded the RWSS Review, regrettably a compilation that almost exclusively uses staff and consultants who argued the original case for the scheme to rehash their earlier work. Of 20-plus work streams, only one included an expert previously doubtful of the dam's merit.

Nevertheless, the Review could not avoid bringing into clearer view the extraordinary environmental risks engendered by the scheme - risks the public might hope would be mitigated by the new Plan Change 6, which now guides management of the Tukituki catchment.

However, the Review seeks to undermine PC6, throwing doubt on how and to what extent it will be implemented (as critical deadlines approach), let alone whether it will actually mitigate current and - if the dam proceeds - worsening nutrient loads in the Tukituki.

In the face of this environmental risk and uncertainty, the Review's tilt is to move the goal posts - that is, change the environmental indicators and timetable.

And meantime, proceed to construct the dam.

This is an unconscionable - "She'll be all right" - proposition. In so many words, the Review says: Given a PC6 we basically think sucks, we doubt we can meet the targets it sets for the ecological health of the catchment, but let's build the dam and intensify farming anyway!

However, once we start pouring concrete, and then see the Tuki worsen, there's no turning back. I suspect our children and grandchildren will not appreciate the concrete albatross they have inherited.

The only rational course is either to abandon the dam, or defer it unless and until such time as serious mitigation measures are put in place, take root and produce measurable improvement in water quality in the catchment.

If the dam were shelved, its additional $60 million could be invested in more significant environmental goals for the region. A massive reforestation project, for example, stemming the tide of soil erosion, improving water quality (including our marine environment), sucking harmful carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, and earning carbon credits ... simultaneously.

Another project could be a "Smart Farming" initiative or centre for Hawke's Bay, to more pro-actively propagate NZ- and HB-proven best farming practices throughout the region.

Improving soil condition, lifting productivity and lessening the environmental footprint of our farming systems ... all at the same time. A programme benefiting all farmers and growers in our region, not just 200 irrigators in CHB farming less then 5 per cent of the region's productive land.

More resources to fixing environmental "hotspots" like Lake Tutira, the Karamu Stream and the Ahuriri Estuary is another option.

Any alternative projects must be joined with re-dedicated attention by the regional council to the most basic mission of protecting our water for safe, sustainable human consumption and enjoyment ... attention (and resourcing) drained away by council's six-year fixation on the dam.

Making water protection job No 1, shelving the dam, and finding win/win alternatives to meet regionwide, long-term environmental challenges - this is what I heard the public demand at the last election.

Delivering against those expectations will be the true test of the "new" regional council.

Tom Belford is a Hawke's Bay regional councillor.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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