Morning Story: New Hawke's Bay dam will come at a price

By MARK STORY - MORNING STORY

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I come not, ratepayers, to steal your water. Rather I, Caesar, shall gift it to you.

Cloaked in Shakespearean rhetoric, even the most absurd idea, like creating a new Mesopotamia in Central Hawke's Bay, sounds compelling.

Though I doubt the Bard himself could pitch this one. That is, the thing we call a 900 million cubic metre dam at the foot of the Ruahines, by any other name, would smell as rank.

We're looking at a howler of the highest order.

The Makaroro River flows too close to its protective mother range to be overfed fertiliser runoff, too low in volume to be milked by irrigators and about 40km shy of being flush with whatever winds its way around Central Hawke's Bay's S-bends.

Thus the proposed site is also one of our most virginal rivers.

Innocent of the vices that continue to sully the Tukituki River, Hawke's Bay Regional Council has deemed it's only fair to unleash a new foe on the Makaroro.

The "saviour" of the Bay's economy comes by way of a tourniquet at its neck - an enlarged concrete prostate stemming the natural flow of this crystal stream. While watershed moments are planned, it's about choking one river to save another.

But Caesar is merciful.

He plans to "offset" habitat loss with a range of recreational activities.

Now, is it just me, or is it the sheer gall of this proposal that has seen it emerge as the Bay's top-cause celebre? Fracking now plays a very distant second fiddle. As a consequence, I'm warming to fracking (maybe there's a Machiavellian push behind this ruse).

At least with fracking there's no up-front price tag. But more importantly, fracking is obviously front-footed by bottom-line private multinationals.

Imagine for a minute if a similar grandiose project was peddled by a body tasked to mind and protect our water quality. God forbid.

I live in fear of the next headline sparked by such thinking:

"Council vote to desalinate Hawke's Bay."

Obvious logic really. The loss of the Makaroro's freshwater habitat caused by the dam would be offset by the opportunity provided by the Bay's new freshwater coast.

Costs could be mitigated by salt sales at the Farmers' Market.

Given what's currently on the table, it's not so outlandish.

The problem lies in council's pluvial envy.

Hawke's Bay has never been the cow capital. That's Taranaki's mantra.

Near New Plymouth the giant mamaku tree ferns stand in abundance on grassy roadsides, their fronds hanging heavy with water. Cows in lush paddocks chomp on shank-length grass in a West Coast bovine heaven.

Maybe the danger is council's inability to discern dry from arid. Our province's world-class cabernet sauvignon vintners stand testament to the possibilities that lie within the dry.

If our dry-farming region has a water shortage, then surely we're taking too much. We'd be better to adapt and incentivise farming methods that work with the land, not against it.

Instead, this proposal is angled at shoring up farming practices that caused the shortage in the first place. Council is obviously a (dry) climate denier.

My objection isn't based primarily on the ghoulish environmental impacts.

Neither am I anti-development; I'm well aware that those who stand in the way of this dam are also accused of standing in the way of growth. That's a clumsy inference.

As author Ronald Wright stated in A Short History of Progress, we'd do well to set economic limits in line with natural ones.

"Our practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology - a secular religion which, like the religions that progress has challenged, is blind to certain flaws in its credentials ... if civilization is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital, of nature."

Flying in the face of this abundant information, council has chosen to modify, commodify and deify.

This dam is not invention. It's the opposite of invention.

Regardless of the good intentions of its creators (of which I have no doubt), it remains a failure of imagination.

If the rumour mill is to believed, buy-in is minimal.

Down on the farm, a groundswell of Brutus-loyal folk (like this former Central Hawke's Bay scribe), are increasingly wary of Caesar's imminent act of cultural treason.

Mark Story is assistant editor at Hawke's Bay Today

- Hawkes Bay Today

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