After a tense period of furore, allegations of intimidation, and planned protests, those on either side of a controversial Water Conservation Order were brought together yesterday.
The Water Conservation Order (WCO) application has become a contentious topic in the region - some feel it is needed to protect two Hawke's Bay waterways, while others say it could harm primary industries on the Heretaunga Plains.
If granted, the WCO would recognise and preserve the "outstanding values" of the entire Ngaruroro river, and 7km of the Clive river.
Although the application was made in 2015, a special tribunal pre-hearing conference yesterday signalled the start of the legal process on whether the order goes ahead.
Representatives of the six WCO applicants, opponents and submitters of the application alike crowded into the Napier Conference Centre for the meeting, led by tribunal chairman Richard Fowler.
This set to gauge how the actual hearing would go - with legal representatives for WCO applicant Forest & Bird, two Hawke's Bay councils, local businesses, and lobby groups having to outline their stance on the WCO, witnesses they were planning to call, and whether they could work, or "snuggle", with other parties involved.
Before any of this could get under way, the chairman addressed concerns that WCO opponents were spreading misinformation, and attempting to intimidate the applicants into withdrawing the application - as WCO applicants stated in a memorandum to the tribunal.
As well as hiring a local PR company, rallies around Heretaunga protesting the WCO have been organised for next week.
Mr Fowler said concerns that opponents were trying to influence the special tribunal and seek political interference in the WCO process, was "laughable".
"There is no prospect whatsoever of our being influenced by public statements or rallies or anything like that.
"If there are going to be waves of people moving down the street with pitchforks or whatever that's fine ... there's every right to do that. And there's every right of course to speak with the media about that if they care to.
"But anybody who thinks that doing those things - that is either publicly demonstrating or making statements to the media - will have the slightest effect on us, frankly that's just laughable, it's just a complete waste of time."
During the two-hour hearing submitters from both sides were heard with local organisations stating their case - from the Lowe Corporation, John Bostock, to lobby group Guardians of the Aquifer, and groups representing sporting, agriculture and horticulture sectors.
Mr Fowler later praised the submitters for their conduct during what was "probably the most difficult pre-hearing meeting I've ever had to chair".
"It's a tribute to all of you, I know there's plenty of disputes between numbers of parties and numbers of people in the room over the issue, but the way it's been run today by you is a credit to the people of Hawke's Bay."
Nearly 400 submissions were received on the application, with a near-even split for and against.
Yesterday several issues were raised - including whether to look at the WCO separately for the upper, and lower reaches of the Ngaruroro river, and whether to hold two separate hearings.
The tribunal requested submissions on these, and other matters. The likely date for either the whole hearing, or the first part, was November 14.
Another issue to be discussed in submissions was on waiting until May 2018 for TANK science to be completed before progressing with the application - opinions were divided again, with some wanting the process to get under way.
TANK is a water management project which includes the Ngaruroro, and Karamu/Clive catchments.
Deferring the hearing had been requested by the respective leaders of Hawke's Bay's biggest iwi, and the Hawke's Bay Regional, Hastings District, and Napier City councils in a letter to the tribunal earlier this week.
The letter makes the case that TANK was "extremely relevant" to the decisions the tribunal would have to make, the four were concerned considering the WCO application before the end of TANK had risks, and that the application risked the "goodwill of the collaborative process".
The four write they thought the WCO applicants had not intended it to adversely affect water security for existing consent holders.
However they did not have "the benefit of groundwater science and therefore were possibly unaware of the connection between virtually all Heretaunga water takes ... and surface water flows in the Ngaruroro river".
"As a consequence the proposed abstraction restrictions in the application would potentially impact virtually all water users across the Heretaunga aquifer."
- Submitters were reminded to check the website every day - at epa.govt.nz/Resource-management/wco/Pages/default.aspx