Tim Gilbertson: The moment you've all been waiting for

By Tim Gilbertson - The Casual Observer

Tim Gilbertson
Tim Gilbertson

The tea break is over and next week the Hawke's Bay Regional Council will read the tea leaves and decide what to do about the future prospects for water storage in the region. The most important decision in a generation.

The review will tell us nothing new. Construction costs have gone up. Entirely due to the delays caused by the authors of the review.

The water user contracts have to be renewed entirely due to the stalling tactics caused by the authors of the review.

Apart from that, there are no dark secrets and hidden agendas. It is what it is. It is all out in the open and has been from day one.

One wonders what would have been the result if the council had taken a different tack from the word go.

For example, the net profit from producing table grapes or walnuts or figs is in the order of $30,000 per hectare.

Similar methodology used by Baker and Associates, the advisers who crunched the numbers on agriculture for the project, shows the projected maximum nett return from 25,000 hectares of irrigation under these crops is $750 million per annum from low impact high value labour intensive primary industries.

Those numbers, even allowing a massive margin for error, make the RWSS as good as the Otago gold rush. Ten hectares of any of those crops would provide a decent living for a family business.

Californian farmers are changing from vegetables to walnuts, a high value crop requiring less water and less fertiliser.

If the council put the same effort into promoting those crops as it puts into tourism, manuka honey and the Gisborne railway line, perhaps the opposition to the RWSS might have been less strident.

Much of the comment on water storage has been governed by the maxim that the facts must not obscure a good story.

The problem with that approach is that if and when the facts become irrefutable, you have to admit you made a mistake, refuse to accept them or muddy the waters enough to persuade everyone that you knew it all along.

For politicians the last two are the generally preferred option.

If, as expected next week's report comes up with nothing new, councillors will be in an interesting position.

They can accept the proposition presented to the HB Regional Council on July 6 last year by HBRIC chairman Andy Pearse (now in voluntary retirement): "That the case for the RWSS is compelling."

Seven of eight councillors present voted in favour. So they can give it the green light again. Or they can bin it.

Giving it the go ahead would mean admitting that they were mistaken which is almost impossible for a politician and doubly hard for the anti-dam five who have staked their reputations and won elections on their stance.

It would also mean admitting that their long held theory that there was a conspiracy to withhold information from them was also bunkum.

Admitting you were wrong on two counts is a big ask.

If they stick to their guns pretty much any chance of viable water storage in Hawke's Bay is doomed for the foreseeable future.

No dam in CHB means no dam anywhere else since the "dams destroy rivers, dairy farmers are evil, 0.8 nitrate levels will kill you" mantra so loved by Greenpeace and its allies apply everywhere.

The $80 million grant from Crown Irrigation grant will go and, given their experience here, will likely never return.

From next July, Plan change 6 will restrict irrigation and stifle or severely restrict future agricultural development throughout the province.

More droughts curtailing profitability will not encourage investment or inward migration.

We will keep getting older, broker and fewer.

The likeliest course of action is delay .The politicians will hope that the courts decide the land swap is illegal, that the contracted volume will fall below 42 million cubic metres as disillusioned farmers abandon their contracts, or that the increased costs and delays will have jeopardised the project beyond recovery.

Any one of these eventualities would allow them to can the RWSS while saying hand on heart "It wasn't my fault". Pessimism, I know, is unhealthy but my observation stems from experience

I was elected to the regional council in 2007.

One of my first outings was a field trip to Porangahau. To my amazement, at lunch time we were provided with bottled water imported from Samoa.

I asked how we could justify our claim to be guardians of the environment if we purchased imported water in a plastic bottle, when we had drinkable tap water and proper containers in our Napier office.

Fellow councillors and senior staff smiled indulgently and agreed that perhaps I had a point. I assumed that the practice would stop.

Shortly afterwards, the same water from Samoa in plastic bottles reappeared. For all I know, the practise continues to this day.

Talk is cheap and action speaks louder than words. When the tea cups are put away next week, will we see progress or procrastination?

Next week's report will shape the future of our province for generations to come. The resulting decision will indicate whether Hawke's Bay has produced high calibre leaders or populist poseurs.

Next week we will know whether we put up statues or throw rotten tomatoes.

Let's hope we order marble and chisels.

Tim Gilbertson is a farmer, former mayor of Central Hawke's Bay and former Hawke's Bay regional councillor. His column appears every fortnight on a Saturday. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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