The first stage of special tribunal hearings into the Ngaruroro River Water Conservation Order application will begin on November 14 after a decision to split the hearings into two - the first to consider matters relating to the upper reaches of the river.
The WCO application was made in 2015 by New Zealand Fish and Game, the Hawke's Bay Fish and Game Council, Ngati Hori ki Kohupatiki, Whitewater New Zealand, Jet Boating New Zealand and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand.
It sought protection of the entire length of the Ngaruroro River, the tributaries and hydraulically connected groundwater to the Lower Ngaruroro River, and the 7km-long Clive River, giving the river national park-type status.
Nearly 400 submissions were received on the application and were a close split between opponents and supporters.
Opponents had been vocal in condemning the project, running a high-profile "No to WCO" campaign claiming the order would decimate primary production in Hawke's Bay, and they held a tractor rally in Hastings at the end of last month to highlight their concerns.
A large number of submitters - including many from the horticulture sector - opposed the WCO on the lower part of the Ngaruroro but supported or were neutral on it for the upper reaches.
The prospect of splitting the hearings into two blocks was raised at the prehearing meeting on September 15 in recognition of the differences between the upper reaches and lower part of the river, where the river systems were more modified and commercial water use was more intense.
Several parties had also highlighted that through the Hawke's Bay Regional Council-led TANK process more information about the river and groundwater systems and their hydraulic and other interconnections would be available by early next year.
Forest and Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said the suggestion to split the process into two was made in order to be able to incorporate findings from the TANK process, and added that the tribunal process was effectively in two stages anyway.
"The first stage is to look at the application to protect the water and determine if has outstanding values.
"The second would look at what would be required to protect it.
"Part of what we are saying is that rules for the upper part of river could be developed first, then rules for the lower part developed later."
Mr Hague said the move was reflective of the applicants' interest in having dialogue with interested parties who had filed submissions.
"We are hearing what they are saying and for the most part they are not disputing there are outstanding values in the upper reaches that should be protected.
"This suggests that this part of the application could be dealt with easily, leaving the most difficult part on the lower reaches until last when the TANK information is available."
A minute released by the special tribunal this week noted that "it seems to be common ground between the applicants and many of the opposing submitters (including the local authorities) that the TANK process is going to produce some new scientific information of direct relevance to understanding the freshwater resources" particularly in the more intensified lower reaches.
This was a "compelling reason" to address issues concerning the lower reaches when that information was available, currently thought to be in May next year.
In the meantime, at yesterday's regional council regional planning committee meeting councillors discussed the possibility of gaining the community's views on whether to support a WCO on the upper Ngaruroro.
The council had opposed the WCO for the entire river system in its initial submission, but at the prehearing conference expressed conditional support for a WCO on the upper reaches, while noting it did not have all the evidence around this.
Yesterday councillor Tom Belford sparked a conversation on cementing the council's position on a WCO for the upper part of the river.
No consensus on this was reached, with committee members saying they wanted to have a "robust discussion" with all stakeholders of the upper river area, including mana whenua.
This would need to happen before the late October deadline for submissions ahead of the stage one November hearing.