CHB's top two local body politicians have reiterated their strong support for the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme, which is under a cloud following Hawke's Bay Regional Council's recent decision to pause, have a "cup of tea" and commission a review of the project.
At its November 9 meeting, the regional council voted to commission an independent review of the key contractual, legal, financial, economic and environmental elements of the $330 million irrigation scheme, which involves building the Ruataniwha Dam on the upper Makaroro River to create a 7km-long reservoir capable of providing irrigation to more than 25,000ha of land.
From my perspective, any slowing down of the scheme is very concerning ...
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The review will also investigate the impacts and consequences of implementing Plan Change 6 - a set of environmental regulations designed to improve water quality in the whole Tukituki catchment by increasing minimum river flows - without the dam, to withdrawing from the scheme altogether.
The regional council has agreed to invest $80 million of ratepayers' money into the scheme and build the dam, subject to number of precedent conditions being met by its investment company, HBRIC Ltd.
Nearly $20 million has already been spent and while other conditions relating to sufficient water users for the scheme have been met, the scheme has so far failed to secure a corporate investor.
With the scheme currently held up in the courts - and the number of pro-dam supporters on council now in the minority following October's local body elections - chairman Rex Graham told the meeting that the community had insisted on "having a cup of tea" and pausing to review the scheme and all the issues surrounding it.
He said whatever the council decided would have serious consequences and it was important the council was fully informed before making any future decisions on the scheme.
Staff are due to report back to the council at its next meeting on November 30 with detailed advice on the packages of work to be included in the review, resource implications, how long it will take and whether any external advice will be required.
Council staff expect the review to take until the end of February next year to be completed, with the findings not due to be delivered to the council until March 17 - a lengthy timeframe that both Central Hawke's Bay mayor Alex Walker and CHB regional councillor Debbie Hewitt were concerned about.
Walker said any further delays would hinder the ability of farmers and other water users in the district to meet the new environmental regulations under Plan Change 6, which was due to come into effect in mid-2018.
"From my perspective, any slowing down of the scheme is very concerning to me. Plan Change 6, which is tied up with the plan for the dam, is primarily concerned with improving the quality of our rivers, which we all absolutely believe in.
"If we slow down on this dam project, when we hit the middle of 2018 when some of these requirements regarding minimum river flows come into effect, where is that water going to come from?" she asked.
"The logical answer appears to me is that the taps will be turned off, so to speak, on existing resource consent holders. So slowing down is not just about saying to [people in] CHB 'just wait and carry on as you are', there are actual potential negative ramifications of slowing down, and that's what concerns me," the first-term mayor said.
CHB's regional councillor Debbie Hewitt conceded it was an opportune time to conduct a review, given that the land deal involving the Dept of Conservation swapping 22ha of protected land in the Ruahine Forest for 177ha of private farmland on Smedley Farm so the dam could go ahead, was back before the courts as the subject of a Supreme Court appeal.
"Obviously I am reluctant to see any delays to this scheme but we are having an enforced 'cup of tea' while the land exchange deal is before the courts.
"However I am of the very firm view we should be tightening up the timeframe [of the review] as much as we possibly can.
"As I said in the meeting you guys are asking for a cup of tea - well, a cup of tea takes 10 minutes and this is five months, so I'm having input into what the review should and shouldn't entail."
Hewitt, a CHB landowner who was re-elected in October after being cleared of a conflict of interest in the dam, said she remained strongly in favour of the scheme, given the economic spin-offs it would generate.
"There will be major spin-offs for Napier and Hastings, Napier Port, processors, freight companies ... It's an infrastructure investment that will benefit the entire region. I'm adamant about that," she said.
Mayor Alex Walker agreed it would be a "game changer" not just for CHB, but the entire region.
"There are opportunities for all of Hawke's Bay around storage of water. It's going to be the gold of the coming century and our children and grandchildren will be able to do things with that water that we can't even begin to imagine," she said.
HBRIC chairman Andy Pearce welcomed the council's review of the RWSS.
"The scheme has been designed to be a significant contributor to improved river flows and ecological health in the TukiTuki catchment and to the creation of much needed jobs for the region. Confirming the project will deliver on these objectives is a perfectly reasonable request and the timing aligns with an enforced delay while the land exchange matter is considered by the Supreme Court" he said.
"Councillors need to have a full understanding of the impact on the regional community if the scheme does or does not proceed. The review needs to deliver certainty so farmers, investors and other key stakeholders know where they stand and can make the necessary plans," he said.