Hawke's Bay Regional Council chairman Fenton Wilson is confident the Ruataniwha dam will be built but says councillors still need much more information before voting to proceed with the controversial $265 million water storage scheme.
Mr Wilson is this week leading an irrigation fact-finding tour in the South Island for senior Hawke's Bay local body politicians and council staff.
The tour is intended to give those involved a first-hand impression of "the impacts irrigation has had on communities in the South Island".
The regional council is promoting the Ruataniwha water storage scheme as a means of improving water availability to drought-prone Central Hawke's Bay and boosting the region's economy.
The council is currently awaiting a draft decision from a board of inquiry convened to consider a resource consent application for the project. It also faces a potential legal challenge from Ngati Kahungunu Iwi Incorporated (NKII) which wants to independently review scientific material presented to the board of inquiry.
Mr Wilson said the board of inquiry's decision would be a "key plank" in finding a way forward. A draft decision from the board is expected late this month or in early March.
"Councillors are still a mile away from having enough information to make any decision yet," Mr Wilson said.
"There's no one who can put their hand on their heart at the moment and tell you whether they thought this thing was going to work or not. But it is getting closer and it is looking positive."
The council's commercial arm, Hawke's Bay Regional Investment Company Ltd (HBRIC), was still working on firming up final costs and the returns the scheme would deliver and those figures needed to be clarified before councillors could sign off on the project.
HBRIC wants to start construction at the dam site in December.
"There is no apparent reason at this stage why that would not be the case, but in saying that we still need to tie some of these things together," he said.
"We've been on a journey with a bit of pace, but we've not been overly exuberant, in my view. We've had to take a lot of people with us."
NKII chairman Ngahiwi Tomoana has asked for a meeting between his board and the regional council to discuss NKII's request for a six-month delay in the board of inquiry process so the iwi can have material presented to the inquiry reviewed by independent experts. That meeting could happen on February 26, the next meeting of the council.
This week's South Island tour includes visiting existing irrigation schemes and Canterbury farms that are benefiting from irrigation. It will also take in Timaru Port, industrial hubs and tourism initiatives.
Mr Wilson said the tour would answer questions such as how irrigated communities handle growth, increased pressures on the environment following intensification, utilising technology to mitigate issues and changing land use.
Those on the tour include Hastings Deputy Mayor Cynthia Bowers, Central Hawke's Bay Mayor Peter Butler and his council's chief executive John Freeman, Wairoa Mayor Craig Little and Napier City Council chief executive Wayne Jack.