The chairman of the board of inquiry into the Ruataniwha dam has raised the possibility of delaying a decision on the project amidst claims its promoter, the Hawke's Bay Regional Council, has not adequately consulted with Maori.
Justice Lester Chisholm floated the idea of delaying the board's decision yesterday during the inquiry's first sitting day following an adjournment over the Christmas break.
He was responding to submissions from Ngati Kahungunu Iwi Incorporated and other Maori interests who claim the council has not met its statutory obligations to consult with local Maori over its plans to change the Hawke's Bay Regional Resource Management Plan and build a massive dam on the Makaroro River in Central Hawke's Bay to feed an irrigation scheme on the Ruataniwha Plains.
After listening to opening submissions yesterday from lawyer Jamie Ferguson, who represents Ngati Kahungunu and other Maori groups based in the Heretanga area, Justice Chisholm asked Mr Ferguson for his view on possibly delaying the board's decision to allow for a period of further consultation.
Such a delay would require government approval because the board is operating under legislation requiring it to work to a nine-month deadline which runs until early April.
By then it is required to have completed its hearings into the Ruataniwha scheme and the related plan change, produced a draft decision, hear submissions on the draft and then produce a final decision.
"Assume for a moment that we were concerned about the consultation and believed it was flawed but were mindful that if it goes back to square one it involves a continuation of the process that has already been no doubt enormously expensive," Justice Chisholm said.
"Would it be possible for this board, providing of course it could obtain an extension of the nine months statutory limit imposed on it, to refer the matter for consultation and at the end of that period of consultation, arrive at its draft and final decisions?"
Mr Ferguson told Justice Chisholm he would need to discuss the matter with his clients to gauge their views.
In his submission, Mr Ferguson said Ngati Kahungunu and his other clients were opposed to the Ruataniwha project and the management plan changes for a number of reasons including that there was insufficient evidence that water quality and the ecology of the Tukituki River catchment would be enhanced and protected under the council's proposals.
If the board's decision was delayed for further consultation it could cause major disruptions to plans by the council's commercial arm, Hawke's Bay Regional Investment Company (HBRIC), to build the $265 million dam and water storage scheme.
HBRIC chief executive Andrew Newman told the council last month the company was on a tight timeline this year as it worked towards finalising a number of aspects of the project so construction of the dam could begin before the end of 2014.
If that deadline was missed the project could face delays until the following summer because some construction work is not possible over winter.
Yesterday and today the board of inquiry hearings are being held on Matahiwi Marae, south of Clive.
The driveway leading up to the marae has been adorned with signs opposing the dam project.
From tomorrow the inquiry will return to Waipawa for its final few days.
It is expected to conclude next Tuesday.