More than 600 people packed Tamatea Intermediate School's hall last night to hear a debate on the proposed Ruataniwha dam.
The 2hour meeting, organised by Hawke's Bay Today, traversed a full range of issues related to the dam - from arguments about whether the project would produce a positive financial benefit, to differing views on the environmental impact the Central Hawke's Bay irrigation scheme would have.
Andrew Newman, chief executive of the regional council-owned company promoting the $275 million scheme, Hawke's Bay Regional Investment Company, said the dam would give the region a "lift" it required to boost economic activity.
"It will bring substantial economic and environmental benefits - we're firmly of that view. It's a long-term sustainable water supply solution for largely rural agriculture in Central Hawke's Bay," he said."
"It will insulate the community over time from the progressive impact of climate change."
When combined with an environmental plan change for the Tukituki catchment recently finalised by a board of inquiry, the dam would help improve the health of the rivers and streams in the catchment, he said.
But economist Peter Fraser, who was invited to speak at the meeting by Transparent Hawke's Bay, a group against the council's plans to invest up to $80 million in the scheme, said HBRIC's own figures showed a negative net economic effect over time from the investment in the scheme.
Mr Fraser last year co-authored a paper entitled The Economics of the Ruataniwha Dam " Is it the Son of Clyde? which questioned the economics behind the project.
He said the price HBRIC had put on water from the scheme - 26c per cubic metre -was too low to encourage investors to put money in to build the scheme and too high for farmers to sign up to.
"I've not spent any time going through and doing the sort of detailed work that Andrew [Newman] and his team have done and, to be fair, Andrew and his team have done very good work," he said.
"I'm actually quoting Andrew's numbers. The difference is how you interpret them. The way I interpret them is the project is not commercially viable and it's not economically feasible."
Geoff Butcher, an HBRIC economic adviser who has done detailed work on the economic impacts, costs and benefits of the scheme, said he was not sure where a negative net present value figure Mr Fraser relied on to draw his conclusion had come from.
He said it appeared to relate to an assumption the project would last only 35 years, whereas it would probably last 100 years.
Under a 70-year life analysis, the -$27 million figure Mr Fraser quoted could actually be as high as +$510 million, he said.
Another HBRIC consultant, Andy MacFarlane, who specialises in rural business management, said economists tended to be "raging pessimists".
Another speaker invited to the meeting by Transparent Hawke's Bay, Fish & Game environmental manager Corina Jordan, wanted to know how the environmental limits in the catchment, set by the board of inquiry, would be interpreted.
There was now a situation "which had created a whole lot of uncertainty" with lawyers for the council, HBRIC and environmental groups all interpreting the board's complex decision in different ways.
But HBRIC chairman Andy Pearce said as far as his company and the council were concerned, there was only one minor point of disagreement between the legal opinions they had commissioned.
The panelists answered 18 questions chosen from 120 sent in by Hawke's Bay Today readers on a range of topics including the environmental conditions related to the project, the water sales and construction process, financial and political risks of the scheme and a planned land swap with the Department of Conservation involving part of the area proposed to be flooded by the dam reservoir.
Transparent Hawke's Bay chairwoman Meg Rose said there were two groups who ultimately needed to say "yes" for the scheme to proceed - farmers who had the option to sign up to take water and Hawke's Bay regional councillors who needed to approve $80 million of ratepayer funding for the project.
For that reason, she said, she asked councillor Rex Graham to have the evening's final word on behalf of the organisation.
Mr Graham said he was not a member of Transparent Hawke's Bay and strongly supported water storage but did not believe the economics of the Ruataniwha scheme stacked up.
"It's a very big dam - well beyond anything else we've ever seen in Hawke's Bay or indeed the North Island - a mega project with a mega budget and mega risk," he said.
"It was not farmer driven - that's a really important point - and it's not farmer owned, as most of the South Island dams are. In my view that has caused most of the challenges to date, and will continue to cause challenges."
A gold-coin donation at the meeting raised money for the Limitless Hope Emergency Shelter Appeal.
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