The board of inquiry into the Ruataniwha dam and irrigation scheme for Central Hawke's Bay has begun hearing evidence with its chairman acknowledging the controversial proposal has generated "strong feelings in many directions".
The five-member government-appointed board of inquiry is sitting in Hastings to consider the so-called Tukituki catchment proposal.
The proposal is an application from the Hawke's Bay Regional Council for permission to build a $265 million dam and associated water distribution scheme on the Ruataniwha Plains.
Through its investment arm, Hawke's Bay Regional Investment Company, the council has applied for 18 consents to develop the scheme.
If approved by the board, the scheme would operate within the framework of the Tukituki Plan Change, a proposed amendment to the Hawke's Bay Regional Resource Management Plan.
The change, known as Plan Change 6, sets new rules for managing water and land in the catchment and sets limits and targets on nitrogen and phosphorus in the Tukituki River.
At the start of the hearing today, chairman Lester Chisholm said the board recognised that the issues before it were not only difficult, but also deeply held.
"There are strong feelings in many directions," he said.
Justice Chisholm, a recently retired High Court judge, said the board would undertake to conduct the inquiry in a way that enabled all those involved to be heard.
In opening submissions on behalf of the council, its lead lawyer at the hearing, Trevor Robinson, said Plan Change 6 was conceived as part of an "integrated solution" to a range of environmental issues in the Tukituki River catchment. The Ruataniwha water storage scheme was "another part of the solution".
There had been "a barrage of public comment" on Plan Change 6, including that it would allow pollution to reach toxic levels.
Many of the comments bore "very little resemblance to either the reality or to the technical evidence that the board will hear," he said.
"It is understood that the management of the Tukituki Catchment has raised strong views which have been forthrightly expressed in the media. In my submission, such hyperbole does the opponents of change 6 little credit when not backed up by any evidence that would justify the public statements that have been made."
About 50 people - including members of groups making submissions, regional council staff and councillors - filled the public seating area at the inquiry venue as the hearing got underway.
Almost 400 individuals and originations have lodged several thousands of pages of written submissions with the board and dozens of submitters and expert witnesses scheduled to appear before it during the hearing which has been scheduled to run until January 21.
If approved, the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme would involve the construction of an 83m-high dam on the Makaroro River, creating a reservoir capable of storing 90 million cubic metres of water which could potentially irrigate up to 30,000ha of farmland.