Ruataniwha Dam: Accountability is getting it right, says Bruce Bisset

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Bruce Bisset. Photo / Supplied
Bruce Bisset. Photo / Supplied

There's a fair chance D (for dam) day is about to be postponed and, whether you're a supporter or decrier of the Ruataniwha water storage scheme, ultimately that's a good thing.

Why? Because as much as both sides might want a decision so everyone can plan their futures with certainty, in reality the Hawke's Bay Regional Council is showing remarkable restraint and accountability in looking to make sure all the ducks are lined up before saying yea or nay.

And as the review report has made clear, right now no-one can say with any surety the scheme will work as it's supposed to. Or even come close.

Especially on the environmental side of things - but economically, too. And while a development of this sort necessarily involves some risk, when you literally have no idea whether it's even physically possible to meet the targets then you have to pause and ask that question.

And having asked, define an answer. Then, and only then, see what that answer allows you to do.

Otherwise, if you're a farmer in the RWSS "zone" looking to benefit from a regular water supply, would you want to sign up, build the dam, and then find you can't make use of its water because it's impossible to meet the regulatory limit for dissolved nitrogen leaching?

If the onus is on you to do that, and the user agreement is that you pay whether you take the water or not, you'd suddenly be slap between a rockfill dam and a very dry place.

Having spent a million or five - doubtless courtesy of a bank loan against your property - putting in the irrigation infrastructure and changing your landuse to suit in the meantime.

The only winners then would be the lawyers.

No, as sympathetic as one may be toward those wanting to know, after six years' work it makes no sense to rush any decision when the fundamentals underpinning the scheme's working life remain so uncertain.

Yet, absurdly, until this week's regional planning committee meeting, no environmental condition precedent had been framed, let alone passed, in respect of the RWSS.

For a scheme of this size to get to this stage without any such specification in place reflects the purely faith-driven impetus of the former management of council and its investment company HBRIC.

But here's the bottom line: Faith doesn't cut it.

So I say hats off to the new council for recognising this. If it means delay, that's to get it right - not build it wrong.

That said, surely when there are clearly defined targets - as there are, under Plan Change 6 for the Tukituki catchment - then any condition precedent the councillors adopt must tie-in with those targets by demanding they be met.

Otherwise, we face the prospect of a handful of farmers in the RWSS zone in effect being given - if their leachate regime is more lenient than for farmers outside the zone - a licence to pollute.

That's unconscionable. No councillor could claim to be "pro-environment" and support such a manifestly unjust "reward" for a select few - especially at ratepayer expense.

So first the council must define and resolve a nutrient limits regime that works. Agreeing to partner with the Environmental Defence Society and Forest & Bird to seek a declarative judgment on exactly what PC6 requires is a positive start.

Only then can the HBRC judge how that impacts on the viability of an RWSS, and make a fully informed decision.

However those waiting can at least take comfort in James Palmer's appointment as CEO because, unlike a newbie, he's already up to speed on all this.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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