A final decision on whether to build the Ruataniwha dam and irrigation scheme is still at least three months away despite Hawke's Bay Regional Council yesterday voting 6-3 to invest up to $80 million in the project.
Yesterday's vote will see ratepayer money poured into the scheme only if a set of conditions is met, including the council obtaining a "workable" environmental consent, contracts being signed to take a minimum volume of water and other investors confirming funding.
The council's investment arm, Hawke's Bay Regional Investment Company (HBRIC), has set September 30 as the "financial close" date to achieve these conditions, but has indicated completion could take longer.
Legal action could also drag out the final decision.
The vote by councillors to conditionally invest in the scheme was made after more than two hours of debate in front of a packed gallery of more than 50 mainly pro-dam members of the public who applauded when the motion was carried.
Dam opponents also got their message across. A giant banner reading: "The coast needs shingle. Stop the dam" was placed against the window of the council's Napier chambers and was visible to councillors until a request was made by Central Hawke's Bay Mayor Peter Butler, who was in the public gallery, that the curtains be closed.
Mr Butler has been one of the Ruataniwha dam's high-profile supporters, claiming the scheme would provide a much-needed economic boost to drought-prone Central Hawke's Bay.
All nine regional councillors told yesterday's meeting they supported the concept of water storage but the three who voted against the investment - Rick Barker, Tom Belford and Rex Graham - said they had not been convinced of the viability of the Ruataniwha project. Councillor Debbie Hewitt, who represents Central Hawke's Bay, said irrigation was "the gift to the community that keeps on giving" and it would have social, environmental and economic benefits.
But she said the prospect of the dam was putting pressure on Central Hawke's Bay who had the opportunity to sign up to take water from the scheme because of the significant financial commitment it would involve for them.
"What they are being asked to do is sign up to a project for 35 years. This is an intergenerational commitment that is putting unbelievable pressures on families," she said. "Our decision today is absolutely critical. We're here to make decisions as governors for the betterment of our whole community."
Mr Belford said the process the council had followed in the lead-up to making its investment decision had been "indefensibly defective".
"As councillors we still await detailed information on critical contractural and financial assumptions," he said.
"Meanwhile, total mystery prevails around the readiness of farmers to actually back their rhetoric with their dollars, and around the conditions and escape clauses they are being offered to do so."
One concern of the three opposing councillors was that they had not seen the contract that HBRIC is asking farmers to sign.
Chairman Fenton Wilson said it was not necessary for councillors to "get our fingers right down into the machinery" because the council has "some of the country's best dealing with this issue".
The dam faces another major hurdle before the end of the week, the deadline for a final decision from the board of inquiry that was convened to consider resource consents for the scheme along with related environmental plan changes for the Tukituki catchment.
The council has said that the dam would not be viable under conditions outlined in the board's draft decision, released in April.
Councillors also voted yesterday to extend the secondment of chief executive Andrew Newman, who has been been working as head of HBRIC while the Ruataniwha scheme is progressed.
Mr Newman is being paid an $84,500 per annum "high duties allowance" on top of his $295,500 CEO salary during the secondment.