As climate change and a growing economy places increasing pressure on freshwater, all levers must be pulled to secure fairer access to freshwater and protect our streams while protecting the Hawke's Bay economy.
Right now in the free-draining Bridge Pa region, the Paritua and Karewarewa streams are dry. It's a bad environmental outcome and a source of genuine distress for locals – particularly local tangata whenua who have a deep cultural connection to this stream. It's distressing for me and for my fellow councillors. While the science of groundwater is challenging and complex – particularly in the context of climate change – it is not good enough for streams to be running dry.
The state of the Paritua and Karewarewa streams is a symptom of the challenge we are tackling to secure freshwater in an increasingly unpredictable climate. Freshwater is the most complex and potentially polarising of policy issues as everybody – without exception – has deeply vested interests (be they personal, cultural and commercial) in the decisions we make.
We must act with urgency and courage and we need the support of our community to do so. The decisions we make and the actions we take now in relation to freshwater management will help set our region up for the next 100 years, protecting and repairing our natural environment, ensuring freshwater is equitably shared and preserving our economy.
Rather than the defeatist position that freshwater will always polarise and divide us, we must start with what brings us together. Clean, secure supplies of freshwater are the most natural resource on the planet. I believe every single member of the Hawke's Bay community believes this and wants us to deliver it.
This is a powerful position to start from.
As part of the Regional Council's $30 million Water Security Programme we have just secured an additional $5 million in loan funding from the Government's Provincial Development Unit to accelerate small-to medium-sized water storage options at the lower end of the Heretaunga catchment.
We're investigating several options for water storage in this area with the purpose of storing water during periods of peak winter flows for release into targeted lowland streams when they are under pressure in summer. This project will directly contribute to maintaining water flows in streams like the Paritua and Karewarewa, and begin to offset the impacts of climate change and water extraction.
We expect that the commercial users of water in the Heretaunga region will fund the costs of these developments.
For much of the last decade the Regional Council has considered the possibilities of expanding an existing water storage facility at Te Tua Station above Bridge Pa for supplementing Heretaunga's waterways and improving water security in the region.
We are currently in discussions with the landowner and have allocated $1.3 million for feasibility investigations and $3.7 million to help pay for the construction of water storage infrastructure if viable.
I know there will be people who will say this isn't the answer and that we simply need to take water off people who currently use it. However, all of our science, and social and economic impact analysis, suggests that this is not a practical solution. Science tells us that all of the water extracted from the Heretaunga aquifers contributes to the drying of our streams and massive reductions in water takes would be required across all users, well in advance of dry periods – which is precisely when we need water most – to have a meaningful effect.
Having built two cities, major export industries and world leading horticulture on this water resource, the economic and social effect of pulling the water "rug" out from our community is simply not an option and we will not do this. We will not destroy our economy. But we also agree that water has been allocated too freely for too long.
The Regional Council stopped any new allocation of aquifer water three years ago and now proposes tough new rules that cancel all unused consented water, and require all existing users to demonstrate their efficient use before allowing their continued take. The Regional Council is also consulting now on a $1m programme of work to drive greater water use efficiency and conservation as part of its 2021 Long Term Plan.
This is important because our cheapest water for restoring our environment is water that we don't use and the way we use water is going to have to change. But at the same time through storing winter water, before it heads out to sea, we can restore our streams in summer and secure water for our towns and businesses. This is the win-win-win for our environment, our people and our economy we are working hard to achieve.
The Regional Council will seek to co-design any development of a freshwater storage facility in partnership with local tangata whenua. Our environment, our wellbeing and our economy depend on secure supplies of freshwater. Increasingly we will have to get much smarter about how we use it and, at the same time, invest in infrastructure and solutions that protect the things we value most.
- Rex Graham is chair of Hawke's Bay Regional Council.