The sale of the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme's assets and intellectual property has recouped a mere fraction of the $20 million of ratepayers' money spent on the project before it was shelved.
But it might not turn out to be a complete waste of ratepayers' money, particularly for residents of Central Hawke's Bay.
The new owners of the rights to the scheme say they want to include the wider CHB community as they "investigate every option available" in regards to water storage, which might include building a dam on the same site on the Makaroro River as the original proposed dam, albeit on a smaller scale.
The Hawke's Bay Regional Council announced yesterday that it had sold the intellectual property and assets of the stalled RWSS to the newly formed Water Holdings CHB Limited for $100,000. The company purchased the rights to the scheme following a process which publicly called for expressions of interest, the council said in a statement yesterday.
The Ruataniwha Scheme stalled following a Supreme Court decision not to permit the exchange of land needed for the dam footprint.
Following this the regional council decided not to invest further, and subsequently wrote down the value of its investment in recognition of the impediments to the scheme's viability.
"It's been a difficult road," said HBRC chairman Rex Graham. "We made a public decision not to invest further in the scheme, and to sell the assets and IP. We have now finished that process and this transfer of ownership will support the Central Hawke's Bay community to explore water storage solutions in the district."
When it announced in late April that it would be selling the RWSS's assets and IP belonging to its investment arm, HBRIC Ltd, the regional council said there were 17 consents on offer for a range of activities including construction, land use, operating the dam and discharge permits.
At the time, Graham said some of the consents might not be worth anything because any effort to resurrect the dam project would face several hurdles, namely the Supreme Court ruling preventing 22 hectares of Ruahine Forest Park from being swapped for 170ha of land from nearby Smedley Station so it could be flooded for the dam to go ahead.
In yesterday's statement, CHB Water Holdings said it was "committed to acting on behalf of and in the best interests of the [CHB] community to explore and implement projects that support and enhance water storage opportunities for the social, economic, and environmental benefit" of CHB residents.
The three directors of the company are Isaac's Electrical co-owner and director Gavin Streeter, CHB farmer and former CHB mayor and regional councillor Tim Gilbertson, and crop farmer Hugh Ritchie, from Drumpeel Farm at Otane.
Streeter said the trio were the only people to put money towards the purchase, and he personally did not own land that would benefit from water storage.
However he had been a vocal supporter of the dam and helped organise the "Don't Damn our Dam" rally in Waipukurau in 2014.
"I am pretty excited about where we can go from here, to be honest. Our job is to pick the project up from where it is now and move forward, so we have to investigate every option open to us.
"One thing we are going to do is definitely hold a public meeting, so we intend to be transparent from the start. The opportunity to purchase [the RWSS assets] hasn't been on the table long and a working group has been looking at what can be done, because there are serious water problems in CHB, as there is on the Heretaunga Plains, so something has to be done. Just in what form, we are not quite sure yet."
Tim Gilbertson too said it was early days but the plan was to undertake a "community-driven" investigation into water storage options that might have been "missed" in the original proposal, that would benefit all of the CHB community and "not just a handful of landowners".
"The last thing we want to do is revisit the old days and reignite the old antagonisms. We want to sit down and have good look and we might find there are some resource consents that are useful, and some that aren't. So it's early days, but the consents are back in CHB where they belong, which is important."
Gilbertson said it was "extremely unlikely" the original 80-metre-high dam proposed under the RWSS, capable of holding 104 million cubic metres of water, would ever be built.
While there were "no concrete plans", he said one option might be to build a smaller dam on the same site on the Makaroro River, which would negate the need for the land-swap deal.
"If there was a dam to be built, it would obviously be on the Makaroro because all the work's been done there. You could use the original consents and just put in a much smaller dam up there, so you wouldn't be flooding that land, that's pretty self-evident.
"Of course the problem is, if you put in a smaller dam that increases the costs of the water per cubic metre, so it might not be [feasible] and you'd be better off [with farmers] putting in their own on-farm water storage. So it could be one dam or lots of smaller dams; all the options will be looked at," he said.
CHB Mayor Alex Walker said she was "thrilled" that ownership of the consents and IP now resided in CHB.
"Congratulations to Gavin and his team of supporters for their commitment and leadership. It is great to know that water storage can now be considered in the toolkit for the future of water in CHB," she said.